Religious African Americans more likely to have better heart health, quit smoking

DALLAS — Through community goals and a strong shared sense of faith, African American adults who regularly attend religious events or believe in spirituality are more likely to have good heart health, a new cardiovascular study finds.

Researchers with the American Heart Association found that African Americans who reported more frequent church attendance, “feeling God’s presence,” or a belief in prayer were more likely than their non-spiritual peers to have positive heart health metrics. Attending more religious services and events displayed a connection to a 16-percent increase in a person reaching their “intermediate” or “ideal” physical activity goals. Moreover, people who go to a greater frequency of religious events had a 50-percent better chance of quitting smoking.

Nearly one-quarter of African Americans who said they frequently pray privately displayed better cardiovascular health.

This research, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, used the AHA’s “Life’s Simple 7” metrics, which include dieting, physical activity, and nicotine exposure in tandem with the four physiological factors of weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. Once researchers accounted for these health metrics among nearly 3,000 African American study participants, the team collected data to compare each person’s religious beliefs and feelings towards spirituality.

The “Life’s Simple 7” metrics for heart health were established in 2010, but an eighth metric was later added — sleep.

Does church increase the odds of quitting smoking?

The overall feelings of spirituality among the African American study participants displayed a connection to an 11-percent increase in the odds a person hits intermediate or ideal levels for daily physical activity. African Americans who take part in multiple religious activities each week had a 36-percent uptick in quitting cigarettes.

“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,” says study lead author, LaPrincess C. Brewer, M.D., M.P.H., a preventive cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, in a media release.

“This is especially important for socioeconomically disenfranchised communities faced with multiple challenges and stressors. 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.”

The ongoing study began in 1998 and ultimately collected data from more than 5,000 adults between the ages of 21 and 84.

More evidence of a link between faith and health

Several cardiovascular experts and physicians involved in the study reiterated their surprise at the multi-faceted connection between vital heart health metrics and a person’s religious beliefs. However, this is far from the first study to delve into relationships between one’s faith and their health.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital published findings earlier this year which linked religious people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to a “healthier life, greater longevity.”

“Spirituality is important to many patients as they think about their health,” says Tyler VanderWeele, a professor of Epidemiology in the Departments of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Harvard Chan School. “Focusing on spirituality in health care means caring for the whole person, not just their disease.”

The lead authors of this latest AHA study noted that Black communities across the country are largely more religious than white Americans and other minority groups. Pew Research Center findings from 2021 note that even 94 percent of self-reported “non-religious” Black Americans still believe in “God or a higher power.” By comparison, just 26 percent of the overall U.S. population feel the same spiritual connection.

Overall, African American participants who agreed that they “feel God’s presence, a desire [for a] closer union with God, or who feel God’s love” were significantly more likely to meet good heart health standards.

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