Religious practices linked to better heart health among Black people, study finds

Black people who are religious are more likely to have better scores for blood pressure, diet and other factors linked to good cardiovascular health, according to new research from the American Heart Association.

African Americans who regularly attend religious services were 50% less likely to smoke, 10% more likely to have a good diet and 16% more likely to exercise regularly, researchers found. They’re also were 12% more likely to have good blood pressure measurements.  

Similar associations were found among those who prayed in private or used religious practices to cope in stressful situations. 

In the United States, Black people are 30% more likely to die of heart disease than white people. They also have higher rates of hypertension, diabetes and obesity – all factors that increase the likelihood of heart disease – than the overall population. These health disparities are partly the result of social and structural inequities, including less access to healthy foods and medical care.

Yet, Black people also are more likely to regularly attend religious services than other racial groups – a characteristic that researchers say can be harnessed to improve heart health outcomes. 

“Health professionals and researchers should acknowledge the importance of religious and spiritual influences in the lives of African Americans – who tend to be highly religious,” said Dr. LaPrincess Brewer, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic. “With religious and spiritual beliefs factored into our approaches, we may make major breakthroughs in fostering the relationship between patients and physicians and between community members and scientists to build trust and sociocultural understanding of this population.”

Practicing a religion and behaviors linked to good heart health – like not smoking or drinking frequently – may share a common personality characteristic, Mercedes R. Carnethon, an epidemiologist at Northwestern University, suggested to CNN.

“Observing a religion requires discipline, conscientiousness and a willingness to follow the guidance of a leader,” Carnethon said. “These traits may also lead people to engage in better health practices under the guidance of their health care providers.”

The findings, published last week, were based on data from 2,967 people ages 21-84 who participated in the ongoing Jackson Heart Study conducted in Jackson, Mississippi. 

A similar study published last year examined the impact of religion on cardiovascular disease, or CVD, among Americans of South Asian descent. The researchers found that religious struggles, like doubting one’s faith, can impact biological processes that can lead to cardiovascular disease. 

“As this study shows, psychosocial factors – and religious or spiritual struggles in particular – can affect biological processes that lead to CVD in this high-risk population,” Alexandra Shields, of Harvard Medical School, said last year. “Spirituality can also serve as a resource for resilience and have a protective effect. 

“Given that many of the minority communities that experience higher levels of CVD also report higher levels of religiosity and spirituality, studies such as (this one) may help identify new leverage points, such as spiritually focused psychotherapy for those in spiritual distress, that could reduce risk of CVD for such individuals.”

In 2015, researchers in Japan conducted a study that found a correlation between religiousness and heart healthy behaviors like exercise and maintaining a good diet, but people of faith in the study did not have lower rates of high blood pressure or diabetes.

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