Getting Answers: spirituality’s impact on heart health

Getting Answers: spirituality’s impact on heart health
Updated: Dec. 22, 2022 at 6:15 PM EST
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SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - Heart disease is the number one killer in the United States and the risk of getting heart disease is even higher for African Americans. A new study suggests spirituality may be part of the solution.

On Sunday mornings, senior Pastor Talbert Swan leads a worship celebration at his church, Spring of Hope Church of God in Christ in Springfield.

“Spirituality has always been something that has helped Black people to get through the very trying times and traumatic events that they have had to experience in this nation,” Swan said.

Those sitting in the pews of Spring of Hope Church of God in Christ may not know it, but new research suggests that just being there is helping their heart health.

“It is a coping mechanism. It’s how you cope with everyday life stressors, family issues, personal issues,” said senior study author Dr. Mario Sims.

Coming to church can help you manage stress and final social connection, which medical experts said positively impacts not just your mental health, but your physical health as well. The study, on nearly 3,000 African Americans with cardiovascular disease, found religious practices and spirituality may contribute to better heart health. Sims said it’s a new way to tackle a major issue: Black Americans are 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease than white Americans.

“Although heart disease is declining in the population, the disparity between African Americans and other groups remains,” Sim added.

About 40 percent of Black Americans have high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Besides family history, lifestyle choices play a role including smoking, unhealthy diet, obesity, and physical inactivity. Mercy Medical Center’s Director of Behavioral Health Dr. Edna Rodriguez said stress and depression are less traditional risk factors.

“When we are more depressed, we might eat less or eat more. When we are more stressed, we might smoke more or like start smoking and all of that eventually is going to have an impact on the overall health and cardiovascular health,” Rodriguez explained.

Swan said worship can be a good form of stress management.

“To come and be inspired and be uplifted can serve as a salve or a balm against the everyday pains that we face,” Swan noted.

However, religion doesn’t apply to all. Dr. Amir Lofti, chief of cardiology at Baystate Health, said finding healthy ways to cope comes down to forming new habits.

“When you feel overwhelmed and stressed, instead of going for that comfort food, you go for a 10-minute walk,” Lotfi added.

You also don’t have to join a religious group to find spirituality.

“People find connectedness in nature, find connectedness with each other with something that gives them a sense of purpose,” Rodriguez noted.

As long as you’re finding social support with a book club, volunteer group, or at church, you reap the heart healthy benefits.

“They feel a sense of connecting us and belonging and so forth because of the family that they have gained by becoming a part of the faith community,” Swan said.