African American adults who participate in frequent religious activities, or hold deeper spiritual beliefs, are more likely to score higher in indicators linked to good heart health than those who don't, according to new research.
More religious participants had better scores for blood pressure, cholesterol and other metrics known to influence cardiovascular health, found a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association last Wednesday.
For example, attending religious services was associated with a 15% higher likelihood of achieving an "intermediate" or "ideal" composite cardiovascular health score, which comprises eight measures, including diet, physical activity, sleep and nicotine exposure.
"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 challenging to change, such as diet, physical activity and smoking," said lead study author Dr. LaPrincess C. Brewer, a preventive cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, in a news release.
"Our findings highlight the substantial role that culturally tailored health promotion initiatives and recommendations for lifestyle change may play in advancing health equity," she added. "The cultural relevance of interventions may increase their likelihood of influencing cardiovascular health and also the sustainability and maintenance of healthy lifestyle changes."
Cardiovascular health among African Americans is poorer than among non-Hispanic White people, and death rates from cardiovascular disease are higher in African American adults than White adults, according to the release.
The study looked at survey responses and health screenings from 2,967 African Americans between the ages of 21 and 84 living in the tri-county area of Jackson, Mississippi, an area known for the strong religious beliefs of its inhabitants. The analysis did not include participants with known heart disease.
Participants were grouped according to self-reported religious behaviors by health factors, and then researchers estimated the odds of them achieving heart-disease prevention goals.
Epidemiologist Mercedes R. Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, told CNN that the research suggests that religious practices and beliefs are correlated with better measures of cardiovascular health. She is an American Heart Association volunteer expert but was not involved in the study.
"One hypothesis that could explain these observations is that both the practice of religion and the behaviors that are associated with better cardiovascular health such as adherence to physician recommendations for behavior change, not smoking, and not drinking excessively share a common origin or personality characteristic," Carnethon said.
"Observing a religion requires discipline, conscientiousness and a willingness to follow the guidance of a leader. These traits may also lead people to engage in better health practices under the guidance of their healthcare providers," she added via email.
For Jonathan Butler, associate minister at the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco and a research faculty member at the Department of Family and Community Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, the study makes "the case to reinforce religion and spirituality in faith-oriented and culturally relevant lifestyle interventions."
"A potential way to address health inequities in the African American community is to leverage faith-based organizations' physical and social capital capacity to improve health outcomes," said Butler.
But faith leaders face challenges including unsustainable research programs and volunteer burnout, he added.
Dr. Elizabeth Ofili, professor of medicine at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, highlighted potential biases in reporting in the cross-sectional study.
Ofili highlighted an opportunity for future research involving "self monitoring/digital devices to mitigate the challenges of bias in reporting health behaviors."