Research Spotlight: Keisha Bentley-Edwards

Dr. Keisha Bentley-Edwards and her team at Duke University’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center recently received a $2.7 million research grant awarded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health. The grant will support a five-year research study looking at the relationship between religion and cardiovascular disease – including risks such as obesity, diabetes, depression, and hypertension – in African Americans. Dr. Bentley-Edwards, associate director of research and director of the Health Equity Working Group at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center, will serve as the study’s principal investigator, exploring the role of religiosity as a cultural determinant of health for African Americans.

What will you study?

We will study the intersection of religiosity and cardiovascular risks for heart disease in African Americans. Our team found that existing research did not examine the relationship between religiosity and physical health for African Americans. Many studies look at social support provided by religion or church and its positive impact on mental health, but physical benefits are all over the place. There is no research, to my knowledge, that examines the processes of direct and indirect relationships between African American religion and physical health. For white people, such research is broken down by denominations. For African Americans, you find research that only looks at the black church in general, with no distinction for different denominations. Current research does not look deeply at how affiliations may have a different impact.

Our project team will study three large national data sets surveying religiosity and cardiovascular risks including obesity, depression, hypertension, and diabetes. We will analyze these data to understand how these variables come together to support or diminish healthy outcomes, based on denominations and degree of religiosity. We want to look at social determinants of health, and we believe that religious frameworks will help us understand health models and outcomes rather than fitting religion into health frameworks.

How will you break down the research phases over five years?

This will be a mixed-method study. For the first few years, we plan to break down existing data, using databases and studies on black religiosity and cardiovascular risks. After that, we will go out into the community, especially in Durham, North Carolina, to churches and community centers to learn how the statistical relationships between health and religion manifest in everyday life. We plan to interview church leaders on their visions of health for their congregants and ask if their churches have health ministries. We will also speak with congregants to understand how they interpret health through religious affiliation, spirituality, or church doctrine, and how they incorporate those health interpretations into their behaviors and attitudes.

What is your role as investigator? How will this fit into your current responsibilities?

I am serving as the principal investigator with co-investigator Professor William A. Darity, Jr. My responsibilities mostly include management—building and maintaining relationships with the community, supervising the team, and communicating with our consultants, which includes doctors from Duke’s medical center and general internal medicine department. I will interpret the data as it comes in and develop manuscripts.

The grant was just awarded, so I am still figuring out how to structure and juggle these responsibilities, but I estimate that this project will take about 50 to 75 percent of my time. Right now, the team is laying some ground work, so we can start analyzing and publishing as soon as possible. I also want to disseminate the information to the public in a way that is digestible.

What do you want to learn from this project?

I hope to learn how African American religious doctrines or spiritual practices affect health outcomes. I hope this study will help future researchers become more precise in how they create health-based initiatives. For health care providers, I want this study to inform how they connect religion and spirituality, so clinicians know what questions to ask patients and can include conversations about religion for African Americans.

What are you most excited for?

I’m looking forward to the qualitative portion of this project because I want to interact with the community. I hope to hear their perspectives directly and share the results with them. Of course, we want our research published in academic journals, but we also want the results shared with the African American community, especially those from whom the data were gathered.

What motivated you to conduct this study?

In my work as a psychologist, I have focused on how race influences the lives of African Americans, and I believe in coming from a strengths-based perspective—religion is a source of cultural strength for many African Americans. This research is an extension of some of my religiosity research in the past, but it is more focused on physical health rather than emotional health. Though I am a psychologist, this research centers on the public health and physical health spheres.

What do you believe will be some impacts of this research?

Besides allowing for more holistic research and clinical approaches to African American health, I think the methodology of this study is important. As researchers, we need to better understand the diversity of the African American population. Conducting between-race studies to show health disparities is important, but if you really want to understand African Americans and create culturally relevant interventions, you have to conduct within-race studies to learn what works well and how to replicate those findings.