Women who have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment at work have a higher risk of developing hypertension compared to those who have not been exposed, according to new research.
Published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the study findings adding to a growing collection of data on the long-term mental, emotional and physical effects of sexual abuse and sexual violence on women.
The questions were part of the Nurses’ Health Study II, one of the largest studies of the origins of chronic disease in women.
Of the participants, 23% reported experiencing unwanted sexual touching, 12% reported sexual harassment at work, and 6% reported both.
During a follow-up in 2015, about 21% of women said they had developed high blood pressure. The majority of women who participated in the study were white and between the ages of 43 and 64.
Over the seven-year follow-up period, women who experienced both sexual assault and sexual harassment at work were at the highest risk of developing long-term high blood pressure.
In the researchers’ analysis, they found that sexual abuse leads to an increased likelihood of psychological distress, which leads to an increased risk of heart disease. Currently, heart disease is the leading cause of death among women.
“Sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace are common experiences among women that are currently not considered risk factors for their long-term cardiovascular health,” said Rebecca Lawn, senior research fellow at Harvard TC Chan School. of Public Health, at Verywell. “Given that hypertension is an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in women, our findings may aid in the early identification of factors that influence women’s cardiovascular health over the long term.”
Lawn and other researchers say more studies are needed to determine the effects of workplace sexual assault and sexual harassment on women of different age groups, as most of the women surveyed were middle-aged.
Sexual assault has a long history of psychological and physical effects
Sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic violence have been associated with increased stress and psychological problems immediately after the trauma.
A 1992 study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that 94% of raped women develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within the first two weeks of the incident.
According to a Department of Justice study, approximately 70% of victims of rape or sexual assault experience moderate to severe distress. This is a higher percentage than for any other violent crime.
Physical effects are also prevalent. A 2018 study from the University of Pittsburgh found that women who experienced sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence were more likely to experience depression, anxiety, insomnia and higher blood pressure more later in life than those who have not experienced similar trauma.
A more recent study from Pittsburgh found that those who have experienced sexual trauma have greater white matter hyperintensities, which are markers of blood flow disruptions that can lead to brain damage.
Seeing these white matter hyperintensities on MRIs may be an indicator of small vessel disease, which has been linked to strokes, dementia and cognitive decline, said Rebecca Thurston, principal investigator and professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
“It’s almost like your body has a memory that maybe doesn’t fully manifest in psychological symptoms,” Thurston told CNN. “Sexual assault also leaves traces of the trauma in our brains and bodies.”
Experts have also noted that the legal response to sexual abuse or the minimization of trauma can impact the survivor – including increased stress and anxiety – which can have adverse health effects.
“Sexual assault and harassment is often underreported and minimized by others,” Mary Sanchez, licensed marriage and family therapist, told Healthline. “Women may hear comments like, ‘This hasn’t happened to you’ or ‘This doesn’t count’. But trauma is trauma, and only the person who has experienced it can define their trauma. What may not seem like a big deal to one person may be a crisis to another.
Depression, self-harm, substance abuse, sexually transmitted infections, dissociation, panic attacks, eating disorders, trouble sleeping, and suicidal ideation are just some of the immediate and long-lasting effects term of sexual abuse, according to RAINN.
Those who believe they have been sexually abused can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-4673.