Heart Health

14 November 2011

Abused girls have high risk of heart disease

Sexually and physically abused girls may have higher risks for heart attacks, heart disease and strokes as adults, according to research.


Sexually and physically abused girls may have higher risks for heart attacks, heart disease and strokes as adults, according to research presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2011.

In the study, compared to women who weren't molested or raped as children or teens, women who reported:

  • Repeated episodes of forced sex in childhood or adolescence had a 62% higher risk of cardiovascular disease as adults.
  • Severe physical abuse in childhood or adolescence was associated with a 45% increased risk of cardiovascular events.

Mild to moderate physical or sexual abuse was not associated with increased risk.

"The single biggest factor explaining the link between severe child abuse and adult cardiovascular disease was the tendency of abused girls to have gained more weight throughout adolescence and into adulthood," said Janet Rich-Edwards, Sc.D., M.P.H., lead author of the study and associate professor in the Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Mass.

The researchers studied the associations of child and adolescent abuse with confirmed cardiovascular disease events such as heart attacks and strokes from 1989-2007 among 67,102 women in the Nurses' Health Study II.

Eleven percent reported forced sexual activity during childhood and adolescence and 9% reported severe physical abuse.

Associations of severe abuse

Associations of severe abuse were stronger for stroke than for heart attack. Risk factors such as adult body mass index, smoking, alcohol use, hypertension and diabetes accounted for 41% of the association of severe physical abuse and 37% of the association of forced sex with cardiovascular disease events.

"These traditional cardiovascular risk factors explain about 40% of the association we see between abuse and cardiovascular disease – which suggests that other factors may play an important role, such as increased stress reactivity among people with a history of abuse," said Rich-Edwards.

Researchers conducted the study with primarily white nurses, so further research should be done with different socio-demographic groups, Rich-Edwards said.

"Women who experience abuse need to take special care of their physical and emotional well-being to reduce their risk of chronic disease," Rich-Edwards said.

"Primary care health professionals need to consider childhood abuse histories of women as they transition into adulthood but to help the health professionals prevent cardiovascular disease among women with a history of abuse, we need to learn more about specific psychological, lifestyle, and medical interventions to improve the health of abuse survivors."

(EurekAlert, November 2011)

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