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The Rev. Daniel McKizzie wanted to get healthier. The senior pastor at New Creation Baptist Church, a predominantly Black church in south Minneapolis, McKizzie was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes about six years ago. A year ago, he started noticing his formerly perfect blood pressure numbers going up. His doctor recommended revamping his diet and exercise. He wasn't sure where to start.

That is, until he learned about a new health initiative from an unusual source: his own church. A Mayo Clinic trial was asking Black congregations to help evaluate a new heart health app that targeted his exact needs.

"For me, it was perfect — it gave me an incentive to be better," McKizzie said. "And I was also able to rally folks in the congregation to follow suit."

A pair of recent studies led by Dr. LaPrincess Brewer, an assistant professor in the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Mayo Clinic, show that McKizzie's experience is not unusual. Black religious or spiritual people tend to have stronger indicators of heart health than less religious Black people, the most recent study showed. Her experience developing and evaluating the heart health app — the trial that McKizzie participated in — showed churchgoers are eager to use digital interventions.

Brewer analyzed data from the Jackson Heart Study, which has tracked environmental and genetic factors associated with cardiovascular disease among more than 5,000 African Americans in Jackson, Miss., since 1998. Brewer wasn't surprised to find a strong link between churchgoers and heart health: Churches provide a strong support network for many African Americans. But she hadn't expected to see health benefits from religious practices, such as private prayer, that take place outside of attending services.

Brewer used metrics that have been developed by the American Heart Association. The seven factors point to three behaviors (diet, physical activity and nicotine exposure) and four physiological factors (weight, cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose levels) that contribute to good heart health.

The findings from the study, published this August in the Journal of the American Heart Association, also validate the tools that Brewer has been developing through the Mayo Clinic's Fostering African-American Improvement in Total Health (FAITH!). The program is a participatory research effort aimed at preventing heart disease in underserved communities.

Community-based interventions need to be culturally tailored, Brewer said, because Black adults suffer from poorer heart health and die of cardiovascular disease in greater numbers than white people. It's one reason white people tend to live longer than Black people, the American Heart Association said in a 2017 scientific statement.

And Minnesota is not exempt from that inequity. Another 2022 study by Brewer and colleagues found that Black Minnesotans display risk factors for cardiovascular disease equal to or worse than the participants in the Jackson study. In Minnesota, they found, Black adults ages 35–63 die from cardiovascular disease twice as often as their white counterparts.

When she moved to Rochester 10 years ago, Brewer started working with the FAITH! Initiative, which now has connections with about 120 Black Christian communities in Rochester and the Twin Cities.

Those relationships with churches have paved the way for introducing new interventions. Brewer's team has been able to tap participants at various stages of developing the heart health app, for example.

Carmen Robinson, 61, a member of Greater Mount Vernon Missionary Baptist Church, in north Minneapolis, said she didn't need much persuading to join the app trial.

"I have struggles with weight and health — I want to get healthier," said Robinson, who has been diagnosed with prediabetes. It's also what God wants, she said.

During the 10-week trial and six-month follow-up, Mayo Clinic researchers measured participants' blood pressure, glucose levels, cholesterol and body mass index (a measure of body fat). The researchers then graded how heart-healthy their diets were.

Robinson found that the app kept her accountable. It encouraged her to eat more whole fruit, which she had eliminated from her diet when she found out she was prediabetic.

By the end of the trial, her cholesterol, glucose and blood pressure had all improved.

Most participants improved in both diet and physical activity level.

Getting health information from a trusted pastor offers another powerful benefit, Brewer said. Brewer and other researchers have previously described a lack of trust in medical research because of historical traumas.

"The folks are willing to be trusting of us, given the history of some abuses in the scientific field for people of color," McKizzie said.

Brewer is eager to share the numbers from the Jackson heart data with church leaders. She's hoping it encourages sermons that emphasize prevention strategies such as quitting smoking, exercising regularly and eating a heart-healthy diet.

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for its free newsletter to receive stories in your inbox.