Women who were sexually abused as children often show signs of atherosclerosis, an early indication of cardiovascular disease, according to new research.
Published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke, this is the first study to suggest a link between sexual abuse and higher carotid artery intima-media thickness (IMT), a thickening of the inner lining of the arteries that may indicate early atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis can lead to heart disease and other forms of cardiovascular disease, according to researchers.
The study of 1,400 Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, and Chinese women between the ages of 42 and 52 found that those with a history of childhood sexual abuse had higher carotid artery IMT at midlife than those without a history of abuse.
The link between childhood abuse and IMT was not explained by standard cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as blood pressure, lipids and body mass, the researchers noted.
The researchers also found that a history of childhood sexual abuse, but not childhood physical abuse, was related to higher IMT.
Researchers began their work in 1996, drawing participants from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN), with participants in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark, Pittsburgh and Oakland.
The women, who were transitioning through menopause, were questioned about childhood and adult physical and sexual abuse and for a range of well-established heart disease risk factors. The researchers found that 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.
Researchers followed the women annually for the next dozen years. At the 12th visit, they underwent carotid artery ultrasound to detect carotid IMT and carotid artery plaque.
“These study findings indicate the importance of considering early life stressors on women’s later cardiovascular health,” said lead author Rebecca C. Thurston, Ph.D.
“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, an 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, advises women who have a history of childhood sexual abuse to report it to their physicians and health care providers.
“If physicians are able, they should ask about child abuse,” she continued. “Considering child abuse can be important in understanding a woman’s cardiovascular risk.”
Thurston noted she plans to continue the study and to research the effect of violence against women and the development of heart disease.
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Aging, and National Institute on Nursing Research, and the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health.
Source: American Heart Association