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Childhood sexual abuse raises risk for atherosclerosis in mid-life

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Study finds sexual abuse during childhood increases likelihood of developing atherosclerosis in mid-life.

A new study has found that women who were sexually abused as children appear to be much more prone to developing a hardening or thickening of the arteries during midlife, an early sign of atherosclerosis.

According to researchers of the study, published in the journal Stroke, this is the first time sexual abuse in childhood has been tied to an increased thickening of the arteries, which causes plaque to build up on inside the arterial walls and can lead to atherosclerosis and all sorts of other complications.

Study leader Rebecca C. Thurston, an associate professor of psychiatry, psychology, epidemiology and clinical and translational science who is also director of the Women's Behavioral and Health Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, PA, launched the study with colleagues almost 20 years ago in 1996.

The team analyzed 1,400 women from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, all of whom were between the ages of 42 and 52, and part of the Study of Women's Health Across the Nation (SWAN).

At the beginning of the study, all of the female participants were asked if they had experienced any sexual or physical abuse as children or adults. The women were also tested for a variety of other common heart disease risk factors.

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Over the next 12 years, the female participants were monitored annually by the researchers – and on the 12th and final visit, they had a carotid artery ultrasound to see if they had developed any thickening of the arteries and accumulation of plaque on the inner lining of their arterial walls.

Among all of the women participating in the study, 16 percent reported being sexually abused during childhood, with 20 percent of them being African-American females who represented the majority who had experienced childhood sexual abuse.

The results of the study showed that women who had been sexually abused during childhood had greater thickening of the arteries with plaque accumulation in mid-life, compared to their female counterparts who had never experienced childhood sexual abuse. However, physical abuse in childhood had no impact on increasing the thickening or hardening of the arteries.

Thurston, who led the study, said that these findings reveal how important it is to consider childhood stressors as risk factors that could lead to the development of cardiovascular problems later in life.

She added that greater awareness about the long-term psychological and physical consequences of childhood sexual abuse is necessary at a national level, especially “among women and health professionals.”

SOURCE: Abuse and Subclinical Cardiovascular Disease Among, Midlife Women, The Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation, Rebecca C. Thurston, et al, published in Stroke, 17 July 2014.