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  • A recent study showed that women aged 40 to 60 who experienced sexual assault or harassment were more likely to develop hypertension over 7 years of follow-up.
  • Those who experienced both sexual assault and sexual harassment had the highest risk.
  • Reducing sexual violence towards women may help protect against cardiovascular issues.

Hypertension (high blood pressure) is a preventable risk factor for developing heart disease. This condition is often linked with high levels of stress.

A study published in February 2022 suggests that experiencing sexual assault and workplace harassment can have long-term effects on a woman’s physical health, possibly leading to higher rates of hypertension.

Researchers have long known that trauma, which includes sexual violence, can affect the body as well as the mind, leading to unexplained pain, headaches, and digestive system issues.

This is the first large study to link sexual assault and workplace harassment with hypertension.

Sexual violence and harassment, which can range from catcalls to unwanted touching, is extremely common against women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB).

The researchers looked at data from 33,127 women ages 43 to 64 in the United States with no prior history of hypertension at the start of the study. Of these women:

  • 23% had experienced sexual assault in their lifetime
  • 12% had experienced workplace sexual harassment in their lifetime
  • 6% experienced both

Over 7 years of study, the researchers measured significantly higher rates of hypertension in women who had experienced sexual assault or workplace sexual harassment. The rates were especially high in women who had experienced both.

Language matters

Sex and gender exist on a spectrum. We use “women” and “men” in this article to reflect the terms assigned at birth. However, gender is solely about how you identify yourself, independent of your physical body.

Hypertension is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, also called heart disease. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute state that hypertension can lead to both heart attacks and heart failure. While men are overall more likely to develop high blood pressure, middle-aged women have higher instances of the condition.

Heart disease is one of the top five causes of death for U.S. adults, so identifying and enacting ways to avoid and reduce hypertension is paramount, with the sex disparity proving an additional area for action.

The mind and body are strongly connected. Many studies have shown that chronic stress can affect physical health.

Gennifer Morely, MA, LPC, director of North Boulder Counseling in Colorado, spoke to the visible connection between trauma and a person’s overall health.

“I have personally seen chronic health problems and strong sexual trauma histories co-occurring, so much so that when I see someone new with chronic or significant health concerns, we move to assessing and treating trauma sooner than we may otherwise,” she said.

In the 2022 study, the researchers say that prolonged mental stress resulting from assault or harassment might impact a person’s blood pressure through its effects on the body’s hormones and nervous system.

“It seems intuitive that the biological response to being in fight-or-flight-level anxiety for prolonged periods would adversely impact the organs affected by that state,” Morley continued.

The authors also say that a history of sexual violence may increase a person’s likelihood of smoking and having obesity, which are two other factors linked with hypertension.

Sexual trauma and hypertension

Michael J. McGrath, MD, Medical Director of The Ohana Luxury Alcohol Rehab in Hawaii, told Psych Central this study bolsters the argument of a strong tie between physical and mental health. He also said that trauma and cardiovascular issues are issues of correlation rather than causation.

Other studies have shown a link between sexual trauma and women’s mental health.

For example, a 2019 study reported that sexual assault was linked with more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and poor sleep. And, a 2008 study reported a link between sexual assault and hypertension in women.

This particular study engaged primarily non-People of Color, with 95% identifying as non-Hispanic and white.

Concern around the correlation of these two experiences likely traverses race and ethnicity, because of factors such as the following

  • Women of Color experience high rates of sexual assault
  • Asian American and African American people experience high rates of discrimination-related chronic health issues
  • Communities of Color experience disparities in health care for chronic disease

McGrath said that because of the prevalence of sexual violence and the known correlation between physical health and trauma, questions around these experiences should be included in routine health screenings.

“Sexual trauma is often treated as a mental health issue, but it has a significant impact on physical health as well,” he said. “Sexual harassment is common, [and] it’s vital for primary care physicians to screen for a history of sexual harassment or trauma since this is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.”

While the prevalence of sexual violence on its own warrants increased conversation, policy, and continued research for the livelihood of women and AFAB individuals, the heightened risk of chronic disease pushes it further into the forefront of the conversation.

If you need support, information, or advice, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 to talk with a trained staff member, or chat online.