Faith Linked to Lower Blood Pressure

By Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News

A spiritual disposition may provide a "buffer" against
hypertension, according to the largest all African-American study on
the relationship between blood pressure and an active faith.

Presented last week in New York City at the 21st Annual Scientific
Meeting of the American Society of Hypertension, the study focused on
the effects of religious activity on both diastolic and systolic blood
pressure in more than 5,000 African Americans.

"Cardiovascular health disparities among African Americans are widely
recognized, and hypertension is the most prominent risk factor in the
development of cardiovascular disease in African Americans," said
study author Dr. Sharon B. Wyatt, of the University of Mississippi
Medical Center in Jackson.

Known as Jackson Heart Study, the research involved 5,302 participants
aged 35 to 85, two-thirds of whom were women.

The researchers asked participants how often they attended church,
watched religious services and immersed themselves in meditation or
private prayer.

Other questions addressed participants' interaction with the spiritual
in their daily lives and whether they looked to a higher power during
times of stress.

Those who professed greater religious participation were more likely
to be classified as hypertensive. On average, they had higher body
mass index scores and were less likely to take prescribed medications.

Nevertheless, the religiously active participants had significantly
lower blood pressure, on average, than those who said religion played
a small or no role in their lives.

Female gender, lower socio-economic status, increasing age and lower
levels of cortisol — a biological marker of stress — were all
associated with greater religious participation.

"Our findings show that the integration of religion and spirituality
— attending church and praying — may buffer individuals exposed to
stress and delay the deleterious effects of hypertension," Wyatt said.

The results are in agreement with previous studies suggesting
religious activity has a physiological benefit. But while praying may
help people stay healthy, being prayed for doesn't seem to have the
same effect.

A recent study of coronary bypass surgery found that prayers offered
by strangers did not improve patient outcomes. On the contrary,
patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of
post-operative complications.

Wyatt stressed that the Massachusetts study investigated prayer
interventions on outcome, not the effects of religious activity and
belief as a part of lifestyle.

According to Jeffery Dusek, an author of the heart surgery study, "the
relaxation response improves health and well-being in individuals with
hypertension and other cardiovascular conditions."

Dusek, who is associate research director of the of the Mind/Body
Medical Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Chestnut
Hill, Massachusetts, told Discovery News that the "relaxation
response" may be evoked when individuals pray for themselves.

"Depending on the individual, the repeated phrase may be secular or it
may be a prayer," he added.