AHA News: Church-based health programs may help black adults lower blood pressure

A new study found that black churchgoers who learned about healthy habits while receiving religious and personal encouragement saw a steeper drop in their blood pressure than those who didn’t.

That’s important because high blood pressure increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, the leading causes of death in the world. Black adults are more likely to develop high blood pressure and to die from heart disease or stroke than white or Hispanic adults. Blood pressure is considered high(link opens in new window) when it measures at least 130/80 millimeters of mercury.

The study(link opens in new window), published Tuesday in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, suggests efforts to lower blood pressure can work well outside the doctor’s office, said Dr. Gbenga Ogedegbe, the senior author of the study and director of the Division of Health and Behaviors at NYU Langone’s Department of Population Health.

Ogedegbe said faith-based programs may be especially beneficial for low-income black adults who may not have medical insurance.

“That is a game changer,” said Ogedegbe, a physician and expert on health disparities among different populations.

Previous studies have found that barbershops, churches and other community venues can help promote heart disease and stroke prevention. But some of those studies didn’t compare the impact of different types of classes provided to two randomly identified groups, the authors of this study said.

In the new study, researchers recruited 373 parishioners from 32 New York City churches. All had uncontrolled high blood pressure, which suggests they may not have been taking medication or weren’t taking it consistently. Roughly three-quarters of people in the study were women, and the average age of participants was 64.

The study followed two groups of participants for nine months.

One group of 172 went through 11 weekly 90-minute sessions on meal planning, increasing exercise, stress management and other healthy lifestyle habits that included prayer and scripture reading. There were also three monthly phone calls from instructors who encouraged them to stray on track. (The instructors had received blood pressure education.)

The other 201 people received one behavior-changing class. They also had 10 sessions led by health experts addressing Alzheimer’s disease, fire safety, drug abuse and other topics unrelated to high blood pressure.

Both groups saw significant reductions in blood pressure. The group that received the lifestyle-changing classes saw their blood pressure lowered by 16.53 millimeters of mercury. The other group saw blood pressure go down 10.74.

Dr. Wanpen Vongpatanasin, a high blood pressure expert at UT Southwestern Medical Center who was not involved in the research, said the study was an innovative way to treat high blood pressure beyond the clinic. The results suggest that doctors should enlist health educators, she said.

“Just talking to a patient from the appointment alone won’t be as effective as to have some continued community support and interventions,” said Vongpatanasin, director of the high blood pressure division at the Dallas-based medical center.

Vongpatanasin said she would like to see research studying whether similar programs are also effective in other settings and among younger adults. Such studies, she said, may help give more insights on blood pressure control strategies in young black adults, who are likely to develop high blood pressure at younger ages.

Ogedegbe and Vongpatanasin said they hope the results encourage public health officials to work with churches, mosques, temples and other houses of worship. Both doctors also said they’d encourage people with high blood pressure to find out whether their religious institutions offer classes that may help.

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