It’s well-known sexual violence and trauma takes a toll on long-term mental health. But newly released data found it may also affect the heart decades later.
Researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health looked at a 2008 dataset of 33,000 nurses who reported whether they had ever experienced sexual violence – including sexual assault and workplace harassment – in their lifetime.
They followed up seven years later and found women who had experienced sexual violence were more likely to develop hypertension compared to women who had never experienced any type of trauma, according to the study funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
Experts in sexual assault counseling and cardiovascular health said the results, while concerning, were not surprising.
“We all know there are many emotional reactions and impacts (to sexual violence). We don’t always think about the physical manifestations,” said Rachel Freeman, president of the Sexual Assault Center in Nashville, Tennessee, a nonprofit that provides healing to sexual assault survivors. “It seems logical to me that there would be a correlation between potential risk for cardiovascular disease and sexual violence over time.”
In the 2008 dataset, about 23% of women between 43 and 64 years old had experienced sexual assault at some point in their life and 12% had experienced workplace sexual harassment. About 6% of women had experienced both.
Researchers found 21% of the women reported developing high blood pressure over the follow-up period, from 2008 to 2015. Women who had experienced both sexual assault and harassment had the highest risk of developing hypertension.
Hypertension is chronically elevated blood pressure that increases a patient’s risk for strokes, heart attacks, heart failure and kidney disease, said Dr. Luke Laffin, co-director of the Center for Blood Pressure Disorders at the Cleveland Clinic.
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Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the US, accounting for about 1 in every 5 female deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts say hypertension is one of the biggest risk factors for almost all heart diseases.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network says an estimated 1 in every 6 American women is a victim of sexual violence.
“Sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment are really common experiences among women but they’re relatively understudied in regards to physical health,” said study lead author, Rebecca Lawn, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “Sexual violence may represent a risk factor for heart disease via this risk of hypertension.”
In response to the study, experts say doctors should screen patients for experiences with sexual violence as a possible risk factor for poor cardiovascular health. Mental health professionals can also inform clients of their heightened risk.
But most importantly, employers must work to prevent and address workplace sexual harassment so employees feel physically and psychologically safe coming to work, said Lisa Henderson, a licensed professional counselor and co-founder of Synchronous Health, an online counseling platform.
“Everything that a person experiences has implications on their total health and we have the opportunity to make some progress in that area,” she said.
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Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism