According to a longitudinal study of women in the US, women who have ever experienced sexual violence in their lifetime were more likely to develop high blood pressure over a seven-year follow-up period
Funded by the NIH, the Journal of the American Heart Association study has indicated that those who had experienced sexual violence, including sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment has the highest risk of hypertension.
“Our results showed that women who reported experiencing both sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment had the highest risk of hypertension, suggesting potential compounding effects of multiple sexual violence exposures on women’s cardiovascular health,” said lead author Doctor Rebecca B. Lawn, of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
By analysing associations between lifetime exposure to sexual violence and blood pressure while accounting for other possible exposures to other types of trauma, researchers found that 23% of the women in their study had experienced sexual assault at some point in their life and 12% had experienced workplace sexual harassment.
What data was collected and how?
For the data, researchers used the Nurses’ Health Study II (NHS II), a longitudinal study of adult women in the U.S. that began in 1989 with 115,000 nurses enrolled. Over time, the NHS II has collected data on a wide range of sociodemographic, medical, and behavioural variables. As part of a 2008 NHS II sub-study, a subgroup of participants reported whether they had ever experienced sexual harassment at work (either physical or verbal) and whether they had ever experienced unwanted sexual contact. They also reported exposure to other traumas, such as an accident, disaster, or unexpected death of a loved one.
Analysing the NHS II sub-study data while excluding those participants who already had received a diagnosis of high blood pressure and a number of other factors – the team’s final sample consisted of 33,127 women who were ages 43 to 64 in 2008.
The data indicated that experiences of sexual violence were common with about 23% of the women having had experienced sexual assault at some point in their life and 12% having experienced workplace sexual harassment. About 6% of women had experienced both.
“23% of the women having had experienced sexual assault at some point in their life”
About 21% of the women reported developing high blood pressure over the follow-up period, from 2008 to 2015.
Compared with women who had never experienced any type of trauma, women who had experienced sexual assault at any point in their lifetime were more likely to develop high blood pressure, as were women who had experienced workplace sexual harassment. Women who had experienced both sexual assault and harassment had the highest risk of developing high blood pressure.
The team note that the risk for high blood pressure associated with lifetime sexual violence is similar in magnitude to associations with other factors that have received more attention, such as exposure to sexual abuse as a child or adolescent, sleep duration, and exposure to environmental pollutants.
Previous studies have shown the relation between stressful or traumatic experiences (including sexual violence) are associated with both physical and psychological problems such as mental health issues and cardiovascular disease.
Further examining links between sexual violence and blood pressure could shed light on the broader impacts of sexual violence on health and reveal possible avenues for future clinical research.
“This study highlights why it’s important for health research to examine women’s experiences of sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment. Future research can build on these findings to determine whether sexual violence and high blood pressure are causally linked and identify possible underlying mechanisms,” said Laura Rowland, Ph.D., a program chief in the Division of Translational Research at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).