Almost 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced some form of sexual assault, with 30% of said women being 15 and older. Sadly, this figure does not include sexual harassment.
Past studies have shown how sexual assault and sexual violence can cause psychological disorders in survivors. However, there have not been many studies that examined the long-term physical health effects of sexual assault – until now.
A new study examined the long-term physical health consequences of sexual assault survivors. The study found that survivors may experience brain small-vessel damage years after their assault occurred.
Sexual Assault Survivors May Experience Brain Damage
The study was presented last week at the annual meeting of the North American Menopause Society. The study is expected to be published soon in the Brain Imaging and Behavior scientific journal.
For the study, 245 midlife women, with a mean age of 59, were analyzed. The women had no medical evidence of stroke, dementia, or other signs of blood vessel problems. The women were asked about their history of trauma. 68% of participants revealed that they had experienced trauma, and for 23% of the women, that trauma was sexual assault.
The researchers then scanned the brains of the women for white matter hyperintensities (WMH). WMH are markers in the brain that signal disruptions in blood flow. They are often detected years before the onset of a stroke, dementia, and other disorders. Therefore, the more WMH you have, the higher the risk of health issues later in life.
What did the study find?
“Using brain imaging, we found that women with a history of sexual assault have greater white matter hyperintensities in the brain, which is an indicator of small vessel disease that has been linked to stroke, dementia, cognitive decline and mortality,” said Rebecca Thurston, lead author of the study.
Dementia and women’s health
According to statistics, women face a higher risk of developing dementia, with women with dementia outnumbering men 2 to 1.
As such, sexual assault could play such a pivotal factor in women developing neurodegenerative diseases, Dr. Thurston says that doctors should be more vigilant when it comes to sexual assault survivors and their future health risks.
However, she also adds that doctors need to practice empathy when inquiring about one’s history of sexual assault.
The body remembers
“It’s almost like your body has a memory that may not be fully manifesting through psychological symptoms. The sexual assault also leaves footprints of the trauma in our brains and our bodies.”
According to Dr. Thurston, we shouldn’t underestimate the effect that trauma can have on the body, and in turn, our health. Therefore, she advises that sexual assault survivors should share their history with their healthcare providers – only if they feel comfortable.
“This is not your fault, so please share what you are comfortable disclosing. It’s important information that has implications for your physical health and your emotional well-being,” says Dr. Thurston.
Additionally, Dr. Thurston also suggests that you pay attention to other risk factors for chronic diseases. These include high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. Dr. Thurston advises that you work with your doctor to manage these symptoms.
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