Religious practices associated with better measures of heart health in black adults

Black adults who attend church frequently or have a deep sense of spirituality are more likely to meet key measures of good cardiovascular health, such as regular exercise, a balanced diet and maintaining normal blood pressure, new research has found.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, is the first to examine the relationship between religious practices and spirituality among black adults and adherence to a set of behaviors and other factors considered by the American Heart Association to be critical for achieving optimal cardiovascular health .

“Health care professionals and researchers need to recognize the importance of religious and spiritual influences in the lives of African Americans — who tend to be highly religious,” said study author Dr. LaPrincess C. Brewer, a preventive cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“With religious and spiritual beliefs incorporated into our approaches, we can make great inroads in fostering the relationship between patients and physicians and between community members and scientists to build trust and sociocultural understanding of this population,” Brewer said.

The researchers analyzed health and religious data collected through interviews, health examinations and surveys for 2,967 participants in the Jackson Heart Study who identified as African American. The participants – 66% of them women – had an average age of 54. The Jackson Heart Study is the largest community-based study of cardiovascular disease among black adults in the United States. It has been ongoing since 1998 and includes more than 5,000 adults living in the area around Jackson, Mississippi.

Those who reported more religious activity or had deeper levels of spiritual beliefs were more likely to respond to measures of good cardiovascular health. Those who attended religious services or activities more often were 16% more likely to achieve intermediate or ideal levels of physical activity, 10% more likely to eat a heart-healthy diet, 50% more likely to not smoke and 12% more likely to maintain good blood pressure than those with less frequent church attendance. They were 15% more likely to achieve an intermediate or ideal cardiovascular health composite score.

Those who reported engaging in personal prayer more often were 12% more likely to achieve intermediate or ideal dietary benchmarks and 24% more likely to not smoke.

Religious coping was associated with 18% higher odds of achieving intermediate or ideal levels of physical activity, 10% higher odds of eating a healthy diet, 32% higher odds of not smoking, and 14% higher odds of intermediate or ideal composite cardiovascular outcome.

Full spirituality was associated with 11% higher odds of achieving intermediate or ideal levels of physical activity and 36% higher odds of not smoking.

Measures of religiosity and spirituality were taken at one point in time, so it is not known how they affected cardiovascular health over time.

“I was slightly surprised by the findings that multiple dimensions of religiosity and spirituality were associated with improved cardiovascular health across multiple health behaviors that are extremely difficult to change, such as diet, physical activity, and smoking,” Brewer said.

The findings underscore the importance of culturally responsive health efforts in advancing health equity, she said.

“Cultural relevance of interventions may increase the likelihood of impact on cardiovascular health, as well as the sustainability and maintenance of healthy lifestyle changes,” Brewer said. “Religiosity and spirituality can serve as a stress buffer and have therapeutic purposes or support self-empowerment to practice healthy behaviors and seek preventive health services.”

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