Cardiovascular disease, which affects the heart and blood vessels, is the nation’s leading cause of death, and Black Americans bear a disproportionate burden. Nearly half of Black adults in this country have cardiovascular disease. Their risk of dying from the condition is 30% higher than the overall U.S. population’s.
Black Americans are also 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 ties 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 drew on data collected as part of the NIH-funded Jackson Heart Study. The study has enrolled more than 5,000 Black men and women from the Jackson, Mississippi area.
The team examined a set of nearly 2,900 people who had answered questions about spiritual beliefs. Participant health was assessed using measures developed by the American Heart Association called Life’s Simple 7 (LS7). LS7 are seven modifiable risk factors linked to cardiovascular health: diet, weight, physical activity, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and smoking. Each factor is categorized as being either ideal, intermediate, or poor. Results appeared in the 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 measures of overall heart health. Those who regularly attended religious services or activities were more likely to have ideal or intermediate LS7 scores in diet, smoking, and blood pressure. Those who often engaged in private prayer had 12% better odds of having ideal or intermediate scores in the diet. They were also 24% more likely to not smoke. Those who used religious beliefs to get through stressful events were at least 10% more likely to have ideal or intermediate scores for physical activity, diet, and smoking.
The researchers also measured “total spirituality” by how often participants reported feelings such as deep inner peace and harmony, being spiritually touched by creation, or feelings of God’s presence or love. Those with a more spiritual life perspective were 11% more likely to have ideal or intermediate 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 challenging to change, such as diet, physical activity, and smoking,” Brewer says. These findings are important for communities faced with multiple challenges and stressors, she adds. “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.”