Researchers have determined that men who experienced childhood sexual abuse are three times more likely to have a heart attack than men who were not sexually abused as children. But the University of Toronto researchers did not find an association between childhood sexual abuse and heart attacks among women.
For the study, investigators examined gender-specific differences in a representative sample of 5095 men and 7768 women aged 18 and over.
A total of 57 men and 154 women reported being sexually abused by someone close to them before they turned 18 and 377 men and 285 women said that a doctor, nurse or other health professional had diagnosed them with a heart attack or myocardial infarction.
The study is published online in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect.
“Men who reported they were sexually abused during childhood were particularly vulnerable to having a heart attack later in life,” said lead author Esme Fuller-Thomson, Ph.D.
“We had expected that the abuse-heart attack link would be due to unhealthy behaviors in sexual abuse survivors, such as higher rates of alcohol use or smoking, or increased levels of general stress and poverty in adulthood when compared to non-abused males.
“However, we adjusted statistically for 15 potential risk factors for heart attack, including age, race, obesity, smoking, physical inactivity, diabetes mellitus, education level and household income, and still found a threefold risk of heart attack.”
Co-author and doctoral student Sarah Brennenstuhl noted that, “It is unclear why sexually abused men, but not women, experienced higher odds of heart attack; however, the results suggest that the pathways linking childhood sexual abuse to physical health outcomes in later life may be gender-specific.
“For example, it is possible that females adopt different coping strategies than males as women are more likely to get the support and counseling needed to deal with their sexual abuse.”
“These findings need to be replicated in future scientific studies before we can say anything definitive about this link,” said Fuller-Thomson.
One possible theory is that adversarial stress in childhood could alter the body’s ability to regulate future life stressors. Fuller-Thompson believes another is that adverse child experiences become biologically embedded in the way individuals react to stress throughout their life.
She believes this effect could manifest with respect to the production of cortisol, the hormone associated with the “fight-or-flight” response. Cortisol is also implicated in the development of cardiovascular diseases.
Source: University of Toronto