Sexual and physical abuse during childhood can have long term effects on both mental and physical health, and previous studies have linked childhood sexual abuse to a greater risk of heart attack and other heart events—but it has been unclear exactly why. New research published Thursday in the journal Stroke adds to the case, showing thatwhether or not women had other risk factors for heart problems, a history of childhood sexual abuse remained a strong potential contributor to their atherosclerosis.
“What was a surprise was that when we controlled for [heart disease] risk factors, such as smoking and obesity, the association didn’t go away. We just couldn’t get rid of the association,” says Rebecca Thurston, director of the Womens’ Biobehavioral Health Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, who led the research with a team of colleagues.
More than 1,000 middle-aged women of various ethnic backgrounds from across the U.S. had yearly clinical exams beginning in 1996 for 12 years. At the end of the study, they also answered questions about sexual and physical abuse and had an ultrasound of their carotid arteries. About a quarter of the women reported being sexually abused as a child, and a similar percentage reported the experience as an adult.
When Thurston compared the women’s answers to their ultrasound, she found that those who reported childhood sexual abuse showed higher rates of plaque buildup in their arteries. They also had hearts and vessels that looked about two to three years older than those of women who hadn’t been abused.
Thurston's findings suggest that whether or not the women had other risk factors for heart problems, their history of childhood sexual abuse remained a strong potential contributor to their atherosclerosis.
Thurston plans to continue the work by studying women who have had heart events – in this study, only women without heart disease were included – to see if the correlation still holds. She also wants to better understand how the early abuse affects women in later life. There is some evidence that traumatic experiences may change the stress response system in lasting, and possibly permanent ways.
While none of the women had signs of heart disease at the start of the study, Thurston says the results hint that physicians should be considering childhood experience, particularly traumatic ones, as part of comprehensive heart care for women. If the results are validated, then they might lead to ways of intervening with stress reduction or other psychological techniques to hopefully slow down the hardening of the arteries and lower their risk of heart disease.