SATURDAY, April 30 (HealthDay News) -- Although faith in a higher power may bring you great comfort, leading a religious life won't help reduce high blood pressure, a small study suggests.
In fact, the study found that people who tried to incorporate religion into all aspects of their lives were the most likely to have high blood pressure, also known as hypertension.
But, that doesn't mean that church attendance or a deep faith can cause high blood pressure.
"I don't think the take-home message from this study is that church is causing hypertension," said one of the study's authors, Amy Luke, an associate professor in the department of preventive medicine and epidemiology at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
"It may be that the people who attend church the most have a stronger social network, which may make them more aware of their health and more likely to have their blood pressure checked," Luke theorized. She added that more research needs to be done to better understand why being more religious was related to a greater incidence of high blood pressure in this study.
Results of the study, which was mainly conducted by medical students led by student Laura Heinrich, were scheduled to be presented Saturday at the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine meeting in New Orleans.
Previous research has suggested a link between religious activity and lower blood pressure levels. In addition, religious activity can likely reduce stress, hostility, depression, hopelessness and loneliness, which have been linked to raised blood pressure levels. Having a strong social network, as you might find in a community church, has also been linked to better health, according to the study's authors.
The new study was a subset of a larger study designed to assess how the economic downturn has affected people's health. It was conducted in an area of Chicago that's relatively low income, according to Luke.
Two hundred people participated in the study. All were black and 52 percent were male. The average age was 42 years old, and nearly 29 percent were taking medication to treat high blood pressure.
Fifty-eight percent said they attended church at least a few times a month, and 35 percent of those people attended at least once a week. Forty-five percent of the study volunteers said they spent private time on religious activities, such as prayer, meditation or Bible study, the investigators found.
All of the study volunteers completed a 65-point interview and religiosity was measured using the Duke University Religion Index, which asks participants to respond "true," "tends to be true," "unsure" or "not true" to statements such as "In my life, I experience the presence of the Divine" or "My religious beliefs are what really lie behind my whole approach to life."
Thirty-five percent of those who said religion carried over to all parts of their lives had high blood pressure compared to 19.6 percent of those who said that religion didn't carry over, according to the report.
Luke said that Heinrich and the other medical students were quite surprised by their findings. They had expected to see an association between religion and lower blood pressure.
"I think the whole issue of religion and health is really complex," said Luke.
Dr. Jonathan Whiteson is director of the Cardiac and Pulmonary Wellness and Rehabilitation Program at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. He said: "I didn't think this study was so surprising. There's been a lot of conflicting data on religion and blood pressure and cardiac disease as well. It's a confusing area, and depending on how the studies are conducted, you may see different results.
"Generally, it seems that religion should have positive health benefits. People who aren't socially isolated tend to take better care of themselves," he added.
"But, there's been research on both sides -- positive and negative," said Whiteson, adding that it's definitely an area that needs further research.
Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the findings should be viewed as preliminary until they are published in a peer-reviewed journal.
To learn more about what you can do to control high blood pressure, visit the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
SOURCES: Amy Luke, Ph.D., associate professor, department of preventive medicine and epidemiology, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine; Jonathan Whiteson, M.D., assistant professor, and director, Cardiac and Pulmonary Wellness and Rehabilitation Program, NYU Langone Medical Center, New York City; April 30, 2011, presentation, Society of Teachers of Family Medicine spring meeting
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