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Cook Center receives $2.7 million to study relationship between health, religion

A new five-year project by the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity is exploring how religiosity and involvement with churches affects African Americans' physical health.  

The center recently received a $2.7 million grant to fund the project led by Keisha Bentley-Edwards, associate director of research and director of the Health Equity Working Group, and William Darity Jr., the founding director of the center. The goal of the project is to study the relationship between religion, spirituality and cardiovascular disease risks for African Americans. 

“There is pretty strong literature showing mental health, social and academic benefits when it comes to religiosity and church involvement [for African Americans,] but when it comes to physical health the results are pretty mixed," Bentley-Edwards said. "[We] felt intuitively there was a relationship that was not being researched or discussed."

Bentley-Edwards explained that there is a scare amount of research on African American populations. Although studies on white religious groups—specifically denominations of white Christians—show a positive relationship between religiosity and cardiovascular disease risk factors, there are not enough studies on African Americans to draw similar conclusions.

The study has already begun and will play out in two phases during its five-year duration. First, researchers will analyze reports on religiosity and clinical reports regarding physical health from a national database associated with cardiovascular disease. The database contains quantitative data on health risk factors such as diabetes, depression, obesity and hypertension.

In the second phase, the project will study how the quantitative results play out in the daily lives of African Americans in religious organizations in Durham. Bentley-Edwards said researchers will go to various churches, community centers and mosques that are predominantly African American. 

"We will look at how religious practices are related to health using focus groups of congregants and interviews of church leaders," she said. 

By the end of the study, Bentley-Edwards hopes to improve and develop new faith-based initiatives in order to improve the health of religious African Americans. 

She noted that previously-formed religion-based initiatives have tried to combat health outcomes like obesity and diabetes, but they have not accounted for the effects of religion on health. Such initiatives have involved nutrition campaigns or have created gyms inside churches to promote physical fitness and better health management. 

"There have been successes, but [they don't] consider how religion actually influences the relationship with health," Bentley-Edwards said. "This study could help to understand processes of how these relationships occur for African Americans between religiosity and health risk factors."

The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health is funding the project. Darity said the initiative provides the Cook Center with the capacity to make substantial contributions to our understanding of racial and ethnic health inequities. Ultimately, the goal is to create meaningful change through greater clarity regarding the relationship between faith and health, and applying it to faith-based initiatives.

“When your faith-based initiative ends, it could continue on without health-care providers or researchers there. It can be part of cultures and traditions of the church as a whole," Bentley-Edwards said.


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