UF College of Medicine-Jacksonville researcher leading faith-based study to try to reduce blood pressure

Published: November 9, 2012 By: Matt Galnor

An associate professor of medicine from the University of Florida College of Medicine–Jacksonville has been recruiting participants for her latest trial to improve the health of African Americans through a faith-based program.

Sunita Dodani, M.B.B.S. (M.D.), M.S., Ph.D., with the UF Center for Health Equity and Quality Research (CHEQR) is working with Central Metropolitan CME Church in Northwest Jacksonville to find members of the congregation to take part in a 12-week study to try to reduce their blood pressure. Dodani said she signed up 24 participants at the kick-off event, and she wants to find at least six more before the trial begins Jan. 6.

Dodani is looking for men and women between the ages of 35 and 65 who belong to the church and either have high blood pressure, a family history of high blood pressure or have one of the risk factors for high blood pressure such as obesity or heart disease. Prospective participants are weighed, asked to fill out a health survey and have their blood pressure checked.

The study will likely have about three dozen people participate in the curriculum called HEALS (Healthy Eating and Living Spiritually), which Dodani used 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: Dietary Habits to Stop Hypertension (DASH) and PREMIER, similar to DASH but with an exercise component added in.

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.

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," Dodani said.

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.

The Rev. 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, 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.

Dodani conducted a similar study in Georgia examining 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, please contact Dodani at (904) 244-9859 or sunita.dodani@jax.ufl.edu.

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