Reverend Daniel McKeesie wanted to get healthier. The senior pastor at New Creation Baptist Church, a predominantly black church in south Minneapolis, McKizzie was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes about six years ago. A year ago, he began to notice that his previously perfect blood pressure was rising. His doctor recommended that he review his diet and exercise. He wasn’t sure where to start.
That is, until he learned about a new health initiative from an unusual source: his own church. A Mayo Clinic study asked black congregants to help evaluate a new heart health app that targets its needs.
“It was perfect for me — it gave me an incentive to be better,” McKeesy said. “And I was also able to get people in the congregation to follow suit.”
Two recent studies, led by Dr. LaPrincess Brewer, assistant professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Mayo Clinic, suggest that McKeesy’s experience is not unusual. Black religious or spiritual people tend to have stronger heart health scores than less religious blacks, the latest study found. Her experience developing and evaluating a heart health app—the trial McKesee participated in—showed that churchgoers were eager to use digital interventions.
Brewer analyzed data from the Jackson Heart Study, which has tracked environmental and genetic factors associated with cardiovascular disease among more than 5,000 African-Americans in Jackson, Miss., since 1998. Brewer was not surprised to find a strong link between church attendance and heart health: Churches provide a strong support network for many African-Americans. But she didn’t expect to see health benefits from religious practices, such as private prayer that takes place outside of attending services.
Brewer used metrics developed by the American Heart Association. The seven factors point to three behaviors (diet, physical activity, and nicotine exposure) and four physiological factors (weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels) that contribute to good heart health.
The findings of the study, published this August in the Journal of the American Heart Association, also validate the tools Brewer is developing through Mayo Clinic’s Promoting African-American Improvement in Comprehensive Health (FAITH!). The program is a collaborative research effort aimed at preventing heart disease in underserved communities.
Community-based interventions need to be culturally tailored, Brewer said, because black adults suffer from poorer heart health and die from cardiovascular disease in greater numbers than white people. This is one reason why white people live longer than black people, according to a 2017 scientific statement from the American Heart Association.
And Minnesota is not exempt from this disparity. Another 2022 study by Brewer and colleagues found that black Minnesotans showed cardiovascular disease risk factors equal to or worse than Jackson’s study participants. They found that in Minnesota, black adults aged 35-63 died of cardiovascular disease twice as often as their white counterparts.
When he moved to Rochester 10 years ago, Brewer began working with FAITH! An initiative that now has ties to about 120 black Christian communities in Rochester and the Twin Cities.
These relationships with the churches paved the way for the introduction of new interventions. Brewer’s team has been able to recruit participants at various stages of heart health app development, for example.
Carmen Robinson, 61, a member of Greater Mount Vernon Missionary Baptist Church in north Minneapolis, said she didn’t need much convincing to join the app trial.
“I have issues with my weight and health — I want to get healthier,” said Robinson, who has been diagnosed with prediabetes. That’s also what God wants, she said.
During the 10-week trial and six-month follow-up, Mayo Clinic researchers measured participants’ blood pressure, glucose levels, cholesterol and body mass index (a measure of body fat). The researchers then assessed how heart-healthy their diets were.
Robinson found the app held her accountable. This encouraged her to eat more whole fruits, which she had eliminated from her diet when she found out she had prediabetes.
By the end of the trial, her cholesterol, glucose and blood pressure had improved.
Most participants improved in both their diet and their level of physical activity.
Getting health information from a trusted pastor offers another powerful benefit, Brewer said. Brewer and other researchers have previously described a lack of trust in medical research due to historical trauma.
“People are willing to trust us given the history of some abuse in the science field for people of color,” McKeesy said.
Brewer is eager to share the numbers from Jackson’s heart data with church leaders. She hopes this encourages sermons that emphasize prevention strategies such as quitting smoking, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet.
This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota’s immigrant and communities of color. Sign up for it free newsletter to receive stories in your inbox.