Studies Show Church Communities Can Help Reduce High Blood Pressure
By Elisabeth Almekinder, Health Journalist, Registered Nurse, and Diabetes Educator for the Manos Unidas North Carolina Farmworker Health Program
Trusted African-American churches are often the hub of their communities and take on projects related to everything from politics to health. Research shows they’re effective places to start health programs and interventions. Cardiovascular disease and stroke are higher in African-Americans than other groups. Hypertension is the most important risk factor to stroke and second highest contributor to coronary artery disease (CAD). It’s also treatable with lifestyle changes and is easy to detect.
In a recent study by New York University School of Medicine, community health workers in churches in the black community were able to reduce the rate of high blood pressure and more effectively manage it.
The study compared two blood pressure management programs—one program focusing on lifestyle management group sessions, the other focusing on standard informational sessions. Of the 373 black adults with high blood pressure, the participants that attended the lifestyle group sessions had significantly lower blood pressure levels than those in the standard informational sessions.
In an earlier study in Jacksonville, Florida, University of Florida researchers worked with the County Department of Health to introduce and test a faith-based program around high blood pressure with classes taught by lay persons called Community Health advisers (CHAs). It worked to enhance blood pressure control in this population based on the study.
The program, called HEALS, has six main curricula with 12 sessions that cover nutrition, exercise, goal setting and more.
Evidenced-based program for high blood pressure may be underutilized in churches
Despite research showing the HEALS program as an effective evidence-based intervention for high blood pressure, the program has yet to be pushed out into African-American churches and may be underutilized.
“In our area of Eastern North Carolina, I’m unaware of any 12-week programs specifically on high blood pressure,” said Samantha Moore, health educator at Pender County Health Department in Burgaw, North Carolina. “We go out on health fair days to the churches and screen for high blood pressure often. It would be a good addition to church wellness programs to have a 12-week evidenced-based hypertension program (such as HEALS).”
Study of Atlanta churches by Georgia State University
Another study was done at Georgia State University looking at Atlanta-area churches and how they address high blood pressure among African-American church members. Dawn M. Aycock, Ph.D., RN, ANP-BC and assistant professor headed up the study entitled, “Hypertension Education and Screening in Urban African-American Churches.”
In the study, they looked at what 95 Atlanta-area churches, both urban and suburban, were doing to address high blood pressure in the light that African-American require more frequent and diligent blood pressure screenings and aggressive management.
Many Atlanta churches conducted blood pressure screenings, health fairs, educational talks related to blood pressure and offered pamphlets and brochures. Most churches offered at least one blood pressure related health activity. Campaigns used in the Atlanta-area churches included “Go Red for Women,” “Body and Soul program,” and exercise programs.
“I’m aware of the HEALS program,” said Aycock. “I have some information on it, but it is not currently being used in Atlanta-area churches that I’m aware of.”
Church collaboration to decrease high blood pressure
Researchers found that churches worked with a variety of organizations in order to bring high blood pressure screenings and programs into the faith-based community. They worked with community health departments, universities and community colleges, and with other churches.
The study recommended that to reduce health disparities related to high blood pressure in the African-American community, churches should develop health ministries to develop high blood pressure programs. Smaller churches should team up with larger churches where resources are limited.
Community-based interventions that work
In Blue Zones Project cities, working with faith-based organizations is part of the reason the program has been able to improve the health of and engage with underserved populations. In many communities, where distrust of the medical system, lack of health insurance, or other barriers to care exist, faith leaders often have the trust over elected leaders.