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Women abused as children may have greater risk of cardiovascular disease

A new study of women who were abused as children indicates they may be at higher risk of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which could make them more vulnerable to cardiovascular disease (CVD).

In the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN), researchers surveyed 1,402 women ages 42 to 52 about their history of physical and sexual abuse. The women also underwent blood tests, physical evaluations, and an ultrasound of their carotid arteries to detect signs of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

The researchers looked at associations between abuse and the thickness and plaque in the women’s carotid arteries. They also assessed them for factors such as:

  • age;
  • race/ethnicity;
  • financial strain;
  • education;
  • body mass index;
  • smoking;
  • alcohol and medication use;
  • and physical activity.

The results were that after excluding standard cardiovascular disease risk factors, having a history of childhood sexual abuse was linked to a higher thickness of the inner lining of the carotid arteries (intima-media thickness, or IMT), indicating early atherosclerosis. This is the first study to suggest a link between sexual abuse and higher carotid artery IMT, the researchers note.

They also discovered that about 16 percent of the women reported a history of childhood sexual abuse, across all racial groups, with the abuse as high as 20 percent among African-Americans. Additionally, a history of childhood sexual abuse, but not childhood physical abuse, was related to higher IMT.

“These study findings indicate the importance of considering early life stressors on women’s later cardiovascular health,” said Rebecca C. Thurston, Ph.D., study lead author and associate professor of psychiatry, psychology, epidemiology and clinical and translational science and director of the Women’s Behavioral and Health Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

“Awareness of the long-term mental and physical consequences of sexual abuse in childhood needs to be heightened nationally, particularly among women and health professionals.”

Thurston says women who have undergone abuse as children should report it to their healthcare providers.

“Women who have a history of childhood sexual abuse should report it to their physicians and healthcare providers,” Thurston said. “If physicians are able, they should ask about child abuse. Considering child abuse can be important in understanding a woman’s cardiovascular risk.”

The study points to the fact that psychosocial factors can be linked to cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death among women in the United States, the researchers said.

Thurston plans to research the effect of violence against women and the development of heart disease.