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Florida State University

FSU, black churches to tackle heart disease, stroke with $1.7 million grant

A $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will fund a Florida State University-led study that will enlist the help of four African-American churches in Leon and Gadsden counties to develop and implement programs aimed at reducing cardiovascular disease risk factors among their members.

Penny Ralston

With the five-year grant from the NIH National Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities, FSU researchers and co-investigators from Florida A&M University and Iowa State University will study the efficacy of faith-based interventions in the black community that address nutrition and lifestyle issues such as elevated blood pressure, cigarette smoking, high cholesterol, excess body weight, sedentary lifestyle and diabetes.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for African-American men and women. National data show that they experience both higher frequency and higher mortality rates than their Caucasian counterparts for both heart disease and stroke. The state of Florida is included in what is known as the "stroke belt" because of its higher-than-average incidence of stroke among black residents.

"Ours is a critical mission because the health of any one group affects us all," said Professor Penny Ralston, the study's principal investigator. Dean Emeritus of FSU's College of Human Sciences, she also directs the Center on Better Health and Life for Underserved Populations ( — the organization that helped secure the NIH grant and now will play a central role in the research.

"Changing individual health behavior improves the health of the entire family as well as future generations, and a healthier society benefits the whole nation by lowering health care costs," said Ralston, who is well known for her decades of scholarly research on community-based programs for older adults and issues affecting the minority elderly.

"Historically, research in minority populations has been scarce, but this comprehensive new study is going to help change that," said FSU Professor Jasminka Ilich-Ernst, who will work with Ralston as a co-investigator. A faculty member in the Department of Nutrition, Food and Exercise Sciences in the College of Human Sciences, her own research has focused on the effects of nutrition and physical activity on body composition and bone health.

The NIH-funded study will target a total of about 300 men and women 45 and older who live in the selected Leon and Gadsden County communities and attend the participating churches. Its specific goals for participants include improving their intake of fruits, vegetables and calcium-rich foods; decreasing their consumption of fat, sugar and salt; and emphasizing habitual physical activities such as walking, stair-climbing and gardening.

Researchers will ask each church to use intervention approaches that have proven effective in African-American communities, such as the formation of a large support group or "health ministry," pastor announcements, kick-off events, small-group educational sessions, partnering with church auxiliaries (e.g., Sunday School, women's ministry), and modeling (e.g., serving of healthy-choice items during church meals). The interventions will be supplemented with motivational strategies such as individual coaching and recognition activities.

In addition, 25 participants from each church (100 total) will be randomly selected for more intense scrutiny, including girth and blood pressure measurements and blood tests for total cholesterol, low-density and high-density lipoproteins (LDL and HDL), glucose and insulin resistance, among other well-established risk factors for cardiovascular disease. FSU researchers will track the improvement in those measurements and biochemical markers following the various interventions. After the researchers analyze the pre- and post-study data from the first four churches, a set of "comparison" churches will establish similar programming of their own.

Other co-investigators are Florida A&M University Professor Cynthia M. Harris, director of the Institute of Public Health in the FAMU College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences; and K.A.S. Wickrama, professor of human development and family studies and a faculty affiliate in the Institute of Social and Behavioral Research at Iowa State University. Serving as study advisers are Arrie M. Battle, director of the Gadsden County "Woman to Woman" project; John F. Green, formerly the senior pastor of Bethel AME Church in Tallahassee, now president and dean of Turner Seminary, part of Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta; and Dr. Celeste Hart, North Florida Regional Thyroid Center, Tallahassee.

Ralston and the Center on Better Health and Life for Underserved Populations also recently received a one-year, $132,000 grant from Capital Health Plan for another church-based study. That one will focus on blood pressure control among families at seven African-American churches in Leon County.

By Libby Fairhurst


"Changing individual health behavior improves the health of the entire family as well as future generations, and a healthier society benefits the whole nation by lowering health care costs."

Penny Ralston
FSU College of Human Sciences