Mayo study shows link between spirituality and Black heart health

Black churchgoers
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Black Americans who are more involved in spiritual and religious practices are more likely to have better heart health, according to a new study from researchers with the Mayo Clinic.

Researchers analyzed data from nearly 3,000 participants and found that those who reported they were more likely to take part in religious or spiritual behaviors were more likely to score higher on the American Heart Association Life’s Simple 7 metric. 

Life’s Simple 7 provides a snapshot of a person’s overall heart health by considering factors like blood pressure, cholesterol level, body mass index, cigarette smoking, diet, exercise and fasting plasma glucose. The fasting plasma glucose test measures blood sugar and can be useful for diagnosing diabetes.

Black Americans with greater levels of religiosity and spirituality were more likely to have intermediate or ideal levels of heart health according to the metric. Degree of religiosity was assessed based on frequency of church attendance and private prayer, as well as religious coping, or reliance on religious practices to adapt to difficult life situations. 

Researchers gauged participants’ spirituality using the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale to assess the frequency of theistic experiences like feeling God’s presence, desiring closer union with God, feeling God’s love. They also measured nontheistic experiences like feeling strength in one’s religion, feeling deep inner peace and harmony, and feeling spiritually touched by creation. 

Specifically, increased church attendance was associated with more physical activity while private prayer was associated with a more satisfactory diet and less smoking. Total spirituality was associated with more physical activity and less smoking.

The cause of the association between religiosity, spirituality and heart health among Black Americans could lie in access and exposure to education about physical wellness, said LaPrincess Brewer, a preventative cardiologist with the Mayo Clinic and first author on the study. 

“Attending religious services may expose individuals to more health and wellness-related information through sermons and Bible studies, which ultimately encourage people to increase practices such as exercising regularly or maintaining a healthy diet,” Brewer said. 

Churches also serve as lifelines to positive social communities. “Social support and optimistic outlook may also encourage individuals to practice healthy behaviors,” Brewer added. 

Courtesy of the Mayo Clinic Dr. LaPrincess Brewer

Church attendance could also be associated with reduced exposure to harmful substances that increase the risk of cardiovascular problems. “Some individuals may be more likely to practice healthy behaviors, such as refraining from alcohol or tobacco use, due to their religious beliefs,” she said.

Brewer and other researchers analyzed data from participants in the Jackson Heart Study, a community-based study examining the risk of cardiovascular disease in Black adults in Jackson, Mississippi. The study, which began in the late 1990s, involves 5,300 men and women and aims to investigate the environmental and genetic factors surrounding Black Americans’ disproportionate rates of heart disease.

Black Americans are 30% more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than the general population in the United States. Heart disease impacts about half of all Black adults during their lifetimes.

According to a 2017 statement published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, hypertension—or blood pressure above 130/80 mmHg—is likely the greatest risk factor for cardiovascular disease among Black Americans, as well as the most easily targeted area for disease prevention through treatment and management of the condition.

Rates of undiagnosed hypertension among Black men and women in the U.S. are among the highest in the world. The disparity begins in youth. 

Black boys and girls are more likely to have high blood pressure than their White peers. Ultimately, disproportionate rates of hypertension have major implications for mortality in the Black community.

Brewer believes the results of the new study could better equip clinicians to address racial disparities in heart health in a health care setting. 

“Providers should consider religiosity and spirituality as an important sociocultural influence on cardiovascular health in this particular population,” she said. “Health disparities researchers may also apply this data as they develop culturally relevant lifestyle interventions.” 

Churches, already viewed as cornerstones of many Black communities, should be further empowered in their ability to promote healthier habits among members. “African American churches can use this information as well to develop health and wellness programs and encourage healthy lifestyle practices in their ministries,” Brewer said.

To improve heart health, the American Heart Association recommends people follow Life’s Simple 7. The steps include eating a healthy diet, getting physical activity, losing excess weight, managing blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, lowering blood sugar, and refraining from smoking.

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