Study fights high blood pressure with faith

Church leaders take on roles in new UF College of Medicine-Jacksonville study

By Kumasi Aaron - Reporter/The Morning Show anchor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - An associate professor of medicine from the University of Florida College of Medicine-Jacksonville is working on a new trial to improve the health of African Americans through a faith-based program.

The trial started on January 6th. Dr. Sunita Dodani with the UF Center for Health Equity and Quality Research (CHEQR) is working with Central Metropolitan CME Church in Northwest Jacksonville. Members of the congregation are taking part in a 12-week study that began on January 6th. The goal is to try to reduce their blood pressure. So far, more than two dozen people are participating.

"Faith based basically means that the study is conducted in the church by the church people and for the church people," said Dr. Dodani.

The curriculum is called HEALS, which stands for Healthy Eating and Living Spiritually. Dodani said she used HEALS when she was the founding director of the Center for Outcome Research and Education at the University of Kansas. HEALS has been developed and modified from two successful National Institutes of Health studies, the Dietary Habits to Stop Hypertension (DASH) and PREMIER, which is similar to DASH, but has an exercise component as well.

Researchers have trained four church members to serve as trainers, and they'll be the ones putting on the weekly sessions every Sunday afternoon. Having the church members lead the sessions is key, Dodani said.

"These are people they know and trust; give them the control," said Dodani.

Blood pressure is checked at the beginning and the end of each session, Dodani said, and each participant will be weighed before and after each session as well.

Reverend Marquise Hardrick, pastor of Central CME Church, said the study is an excellent opportunity for his congregation to learn important information in a setting where they are comfortable.

"Within our community, the church has always been an extended family," said Hardrick, who is in his second year as pastor of the congregation with more than 400 people. "It's like someone bringing something of this nature to your house and your family members."

Hardrick said he hopes after the 12 weeks he'll see a more vibrant, healthy congregation with people who feel better and are more conscious of what they are putting in their bodies. Dodani specializes in programs researching the causes of cardiovascular disease in minorities, particularly in African Americans. Her focus uses programs based in the church to help people learn healthier lifestyle and lower their risk of serious diseases.

"The African American community, like any other community... believes in God," Dr. Dodani says. "And one of the scriptures that are in this program also is your body is a temple. Just like you take care of your soul, it's very important to take care of your body. So when they deliver these sessions, they bring these scriptures in front. And I think that is one of the reasons why the program is more successful; that this is our responsibility that God has given us."

High blood pressure is known as the silent killer because, if it is not noticed or addressed, it can lead to a heart attack or a stroke. One of the primary goals of the trial is to raise awareness about what blood pressure is and what it can do to a person's body if it's not controlled, Dodani said.

But by eating right and leading a healthier lifestyle, people can reduce their own blood pressure without always having to resort to medication, said Dodani, who teaches in the division of cardiology at the UF College of Medicine-Jacksonville.

Blood pressure is measured in two figures: systolic, the top reading, and diastolic, the bottom reading. Normal blood pressure is less than 120 over 80. High blood pressure is defined as anything more than 140 over 90. By the end of the 12 weeks, Dodani hopes that each participant has dropped their blood pressure by at least four points in the top reading and two points in the bottom reading. Even a slight drop can make a significant difference in a person's overall health, Dodani said.

Dodani conducted a similar study in Georgia that examined diabetes prevention programs at 20 predominantly African-American churches. A lifestyle program needs to be tailored to culturally acceptable foods and practices, Dodani said. And recognizing the importance of the church in African-American neighborhoods can be a key to fostering changes in lifestyle.

For more information on the program, contact Dodani at (904) 244-9859 or

Copyright 2013 by All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.