Heart Health

Sexual Violence and Hypertension

Compared with women who had never experienced any type of trauma, women who had experienced sexual assault at any point in their lifetime were more likely to develop high blood pressure, as were women who had experienced workplace sexual harassment. Women who had experienced both sexual assault and harassment had the highest risk of developing high blood pressure.

These associations remained even after the researchers accounted for various health behaviors and conditions. Across analyses, the researchers found that links between non-sexual traumatic experiences and high blood pressure were inconsistent.

The researchers note that the risk for high blood pressure associated with lifetime sexual violence is similar in magnitude to associations with other factors that have received more attention, such as exposure to sexual abuse as a child or adolescent, sleep duration, and exposure to environmental pollutants.

Previous research suggests that stressful or traumatic life experiences, including exposure to sexual violence, are associated with both mental health problems and physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease. Previous research has also shown that having high blood pressure increases a person’s likelihood of cardiovascular disease. Further examining links between sexual violence and blood pressure could shed light on the broader impacts of sexual violence on health and reveal possible avenues for clinical intervention.

Strengths of this study include the fact that the researchers were able to examine multiple types of sexual violence and a range of other possible variables, including other types of trauma. However, the researchers note some limitations of the NHS II data that should be addressed in future research, including limited self-report measures for both sexual violence and hypertension that did not capture details regarding severity and timing. They also note that although the NHS II sample is relatively large, it consists of mostly non-Hispanic white women, all of whom share the same profession. As such, the results may not generalize to other populations.

“This study highlights why it’s important for health research to examine women’s experiences of sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment. Future research can build on these findings to determine whether sexual violence and high blood pressure are causally linked and identify possible underlying mechanisms,” said Laura Rowland, Ph.D., a program chief in the Division of Translational Research at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

The research was supported by NIMH; the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI); and the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

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