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High blood pressure is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease – the leading cause of death worldwide. Now, while women do have a lower risk of heart disease than men, they do have a higher rate of mortality and poorer prognosis following an acute cardiovascular (CV) event (1).

Therefore, the factors that surround women’s heart health need to be prioritized. This should be done so that tools can be developed that will help to maintain their cardiovascular health.

Around 1 in 3 women have experienced some form of sexual assault globally, with 30% of said women being 15 and older. Sadly, this figure does not even include sexual harassment.

Last year, a study revealed that survivors of sexual assault face a heightened risk of developing brain damage and dementia. Now, new research has once again shed light on the health consequences of trauma from sexual violence. The new study suggests that survivors of sexual assault and harassment may struggle with their heart health in the future.

Sexual Assault Survivors May Experience High Blood Pressure

A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association set out to examine lifetime sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment in relation to hypertension.

High Blood Pressure

For the study, the researchers used data from over seven years from the ongoing Nurses’ Health Study II which was examining the risk of chronic diseases in women. For the nursing study, in 2008, over 33 000 women, mostly white middle-aged women aged 43 to 64, provided information about any previous sexual harassment experiences at work or other unwanted sexual contact.

They also shared if they had experienced other traumas, such as an accident, disaster, or death of a loved one. They then shared similar information again in 2015 so that the researchers could record any changes in blood pressure.

Does sexual assault cause hypertension?

“Our finding that experiencing both sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment had the highest risk of hypertension underscores the potential compounding effects of multiple sexual violence exposures on women’s long-term cardiovascular health,” – Rebecca B. Lawn, study lead author.

According to the study, women who reported having experienced both sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment faced a 21% increased risk of developing hypertension compared to women who did not. What’s more, women who had experienced workplace sexual harassment faced a 15% higher risk, while women who had experienced sexual assault had an 11% higher risk of hypertension than those with no sexual trauma.  

The researchers also noted that no similar link was found between hypertension and all other kinds of trauma, and so they concluded that: “increased hypertension risk does not appear to be associated with all trauma exposure.”

The body remembers

“This study highlights why it’s important for health research to examine women’s experiences of sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment,” Laura Rowland, a program chief in the Division of Translational Research at the National Institute of Mental Health.

This is not the first study to find an association between sexual assault and health problems in women.

According to a 2018 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, women in the study who experienced sexual assault were three times more likely to experience depression and twice as likely to have elevated anxiety than women without a history of sexual trauma.

The study also found that these women were twice as likely to have sleep issues, including insomnia and higher levels of triglycerides – which can increase their risk for heart disease.

Conclusion

The reality is that sexual trauma in women can really change their body’s function. This is something that needs to be studied better. As such, while no one should be pressured to, sharing your sexual assault history with your healthcare provider is something you might want to think about.

Want to know more?

Unfortunately, women runners have to deal with constant harassment and the threat of attacks while exercising outside. That said, here are a few ways that women can stay safe when running outside.

References

1. Wakabayashi I. (2017). Gender differences in cardiovascular risk factors in patients with coronary artery disease and those with type 2 diabetes. Journal of thoracic disease, 9(5), E503–E506. https://doi.org/10.21037/jtd.2017.04.30

2. Lawn. R. B., Nishimi, K., Sumner, J., Chibnik, L., et al. (2022).Sexual Violence and Risk of Hypertension in Women in the Nurses’ Health Study II: A 7‐Year Prospective Analysis. Journal of the American Heart Association https://doi.org/10.1161/JAHA.121.023015

3. Thurston RC, Chang Y, Matthews KA, von Känel R, Koenen K.  2019. Association of Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault With Midlife Women’s Mental and Physical Health. JAMA Intern Med.;179(1):48–53. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.4886

Pie Mulumba

Pie Mulumba

Pie Mulumba is a beauty and wellness writer who has a passion for poetry, equality, natural hair, and skin-care. With a journalism degree from Pearson's Institute of Higher Education, and identifiable by either her large afro or colorful locks, Pie aspires to continuously provide the latest information, be it beauty or wellness, on how one can adopt a healthy lifestyle on a day-to-day basis.

The content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or other professional advice. For more information on your medical condition and treatment options, speak to your healthcare professional.