Spirituality, religion related to heart health among black Americans

With a glance

  • Religion and spirituality linked to improved heart health in study of black Americans.
  • Findings suggest that spiritual perspectives or religious beliefs may play an important role in heart health interventions among Black Americans.

Cardiovascular disease, which affects the heart and blood vessels, is the nation’s leading cause of death, and black Americans bear a disproportionate burden. Almost half of black adults in this country have cardiovascular disease. Their risk of dying from the condition is 30% higher than that of the general US population.

In addition, black Americans are more likely than other racial groups to attend weekly religious services. Past studies have found links between spiritual beliefs and cardiovascular health. But to date, few have examined the relationships between religious beliefs and spirituality with specific measures of cardiovascular health among Black Americans.

To better understand these relationships, Dr. LaPrincess C. Brewer of the Mayo Clinic and her colleagues used data collected as part of the NIH-funded Jackson Heart Study. The study included more than 5,000 black men and women from the Jackson, Mississippi area.

The team studied a group of nearly 2,900 people who answered questions about spiritual beliefs. Participants’ health was assessed using measures developed by the American Heart Association called Life’s Simple 7 (LS7). The LS7 are seven modifiable risk factors related to cardiovascular health: diet, weight, physical activity, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and smoking. Each factor is categorized as ideal, intermediate or poor. The results appeared in Journal of the American Heart Association on September 6, 2022

The researchers found that people who engaged in more religious activities or had spiritual perspectives tended to have better overall heart health scores. Those who regularly attend religious services or activities are more likely to have ideal or intermediate LS7 scores for diet, smoking and blood pressure. Those who frequently engaged in personal prayer were 12% more likely to have ideal or intermediate results on the diet. They are also 24% more likely to not smoke. Those who used religious beliefs to get through stressful events were at least 10 percent more likely to have ideal or intermediate scores on physical activity, diet, and smoking.

The researchers also measured “total spirituality” by how often participants reported feelings such as deep inner peace and harmony, a spiritual touch from creation, or a sense of God’s presence or love. Those with a more spiritual outlook on life were 11% more likely to have ideal or average levels of physical activity and 36% more likely to be non-smokers.

“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 difficult to change, such as diet, physical activity, and smoking,” says Brewer. These findings are important for communities facing multiple challenges and stressors, she adds. “Religiosity and spirituality can serve as a stress buffer and have therapeutic purposes or support self-empowerment to practice healthy behaviors and seek preventive health services.”

– by Vicki Conti

Financing: NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), and National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); American Heart Association.

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