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Religion and spirituality could be a key component of better heart health, new study suggests

August 24, 2022, 9:00 PM UTC
Black woman reading the Bible at home
Religious activities such as reading the Bible may serve as a buffer to stress.
Delmaine Donson—Getty Images

While going to church, attending Bible study, and praying on a regular basis may not be the first images that come to mind when discussing self-care, a new study from the Journal of the American Heart Association says that religiousness and spirituality may be linked to better heart health among African Americans.

“Religion is often described as both a belief and a practice,” says Mercedes Carnethon, president of the American Heart Association’s metro Chicago board of directors and vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “I think that the practice of religion is what is most strongly associated with better cardiovascular health. The practice of religion requires discipline and structure—the discipline of regular prayer and structuring one’s life to regularly attend religious services.”

Additionally, Carnethon suggests that individuals with the type of self-control necessary for religious and spiritual practices are more likely to sleep and exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, and take their medication as prescribed, some of the key metrics the American Heart Association (AHA) uses to determine heart health.

For example, greater frequency of attending religious services or activities was associated with a “16% increase in odds of meeting ‘intermediate’ or ‘ideal’ metrics for physical activity; 10% for diet; 50% for smoking; 12% for blood pressure; and 15% for overall cardiovascular health score,” according to a press release from the AHA.

“There is also some component of the beliefs that may promote better health as religious people may endorse the sentiment that the body is a temple, and so they may be less likely to smoke cigarettes or drink heavily,” she continues. “Religiosity often requires respecting authority in the church. It is possible that individuals who are willing to follow the leadership in the church may be more likely to hold health care providers in high regard.”

The study, which is believed to be the first of its kind, analyzed responses from nearly 3,000 African American adults in the tri-county area of Jackson, Miss. About 70% of the participants were women, and the average age at study enrollment was 54 years old.

Overall, African Americans have poorer heart health compared with white adults and are twice as likely to die from heart disease as white people of the same age. The study’s lead author, Dr. LaPrincess C. Brewer, a preventive cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., believes the findings highlight the important role culturally tailored health initiatives and recommendations may play in advancing health equity.

“This is especially important for socioeconomically disenfranchised communities faced with multiple challenges and stressors,” Brewer notes in the press release. “Religiosity and spirituality may serve as a buffer to stress and have therapeutic purposes or support self-empowerment to practice healthy behaviors and seek preventive health services.”