The Harvard / MGH Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations, and Health Disparities has recently been awarded a $3 million award from the John Templeton Foundation to continue the work of our Consortium on Psychosocial Stress, Spirituality, and Health, which we began in 2016.
This Consortium brings together the following cohorts: Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS), Nurses’ Health Study II (NHSII), Mediators of Atherosclerosis in South Aisians Living in America (MASALA), Strong Heart Study (SHS), Hispanic Community Health Study of Latinos (HCHS/SOL), Growing Up Together Study (GUTS), and Baependi Heart Study into a large, highly diverse cohort of over 25,000 participants (African American, Native American, South Asian American, white American, and Brazilian and American Latinx). The Consortium is a unique national resource for empirically investigating the intersection of psychosocial stress, racial/ethnic disparities, and positive mediating resources for resiliency such as spirituality and religious coping. We hope to have additional cohorts join our collaboration in the months and years ahead.
Religion and spirituality (R/S) are critical sources of hope and resiliency for millions of people. With the exception of church attendance and mortality, however, there have been few prospective studies assessing the influence of R/S on disease risk, due to the limited number of R/S measures available in national cohort studies. Such cohorts are our nation’s primary resource for identifying risk factors for innumerable diseases. They have the rich social, environmental, lifestyle, and clinical data needed to conduct high-quality, prospective R/S studies.
A major aim of our Consortium work is to begin to shift the state of science towards understanding the underlying mechanisms through which psychosocial stress contributes to disease. We have begun this work by examining psychosocial stressors in relation to DNA methylation in five stress-related and serotonergic genes, as well in relation to telomere attrition. Importantly, our large and diverse Consortium allows us to study these genetic mechanisms in relation to health outcomes (such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and mortality) that are marked by persistent racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities. Ours is the first such study that is adequately powered to conduct comparative assessment of the relationship of psychosocial stress and these biomarkers between the diverse populations in our cohort.
Another important innovation of our work is that it looks at the influence of positive resources for resiliency such as religion and spirituality, in addition to studying psychosocial exposures. Spirituality is a particularly salient cultural influence in Black, Latinx, South Asian, and Native American communities, and our research is the first large-scale, project to rigorously assess religion or spirituality within a biologically-meaningful framework. By doing so, we hope to generate new insights into persistent health disparities in underserved communities.
This new award ("Investigating the Impact of Multiple Dimensions of Religion and Spirituality on Risk of CVD across Diverse Racial/Ethnic Communities") specifically seeks to prospectively assess the impact of R/S on incident cardiovascular disease, investigate biological pathways through which R/S affects health using previously created biomarkers of stress (DNA methylation, telomere length), and conduct cutting-edge psychometric and machine learning analyses of the R/S survey developed by our team. This research will help identify the most important R/S measures to encourage cohorts to collect, and develop a transformative national research infrastructure to support innumerable high-quality R/S studies in the future.