Sexual abuse: long-term cardiac and neurological consequences in victims

The recent scandal of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church somewhat lifts the veil on an often hidden reality, that of sexual abuse and its consequences. It has long been clear that sexual abuse has psychological consequences for victims, in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and an increased risk of drug and alcohol abuse, among others. .

But recent research has shown that the trauma of sexual abuse can also affect a woman’s heart and brain, even years later.

Now, two new studies show that there may also be long-term effects on physical health. According to the researchers, heart disease and damage to small vessels in the brain can occur years after the violence. Abstracts of both studies were presented at the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) annual meeting on September 24, 2021.

Until then, no studies had attempted to establish a link between sexual assault and physical health, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke and the risk of dementia. Sexual violence is a major problem, and an all too common problem that would affect between 5 and 6 million people in France.

Midlife women sexually abused show markers of brain disease

In one of the studies presented at the NAMS conference, 145 middle-aged women (average age 59) with no medical signs of stroke, dementia, or other signs of vascular problems were interviewed. about their history of trauma. Blood pressure, body mass index and other indicators were measured.

Next, the women’s brains were imaged to detect white matter (HSB) hyperintensifications. These signs are markers of small vessel disease in the brain and can be detected decades before the onset of stroke, dementia or other disorders. The more important this sign, the higher the risk of later problems. Some 68% of the women who participated in the study reported having suffered at least one trauma, with sexual assault being the most frequent (23%).

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It has been found that women who have suffered such trauma, especially sexual assault, have significantly higher HSB volume than others. These results held even when the researchers took into account other factors that may affect the volume of BHS, such as PTSD or depression.

Sexual abuse also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease

In the second study, the scientists searched existing scientific research databases for those that mentioned sexual violence and also cardiovascular disease. Some 41 studies covering almost two million adults (including three quarters of women) were finally evaluated. The researchers found that sexual violence was correlated with an increased incidence of cardiovascular disease in midlife. The timing of the abuse played a role, with the effects being greatest in people whose sexual abuse occurred during childhood.

Implications for women and their physicians

The study findings suggest that sexual assault may put women at risk for poor brain health later in life and that women who have a history of assault deserve increased vigilance to reduce the risk of stroke and of dementia. Physicians should consider a history of sexual assault when considering a woman’s risk of stroke or dementia by asking her about this history. But they also need to understand that patients may take some time and need trust before disclosing this history.

From the findings for heart disease, it is evident that informing cardiologists of a history of trauma can help physicians better monitor cardiovascular health. Cardiologists know that a woman’s risk of heart and vascular disease is linked to traditional and non-traditional factors. Sharing trauma history can help the doctor better understand a woman’s risk.

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This disclosure can also allow a woman to receive more trauma-informed care during physical exams, as well as obtain desired referrals to mental health or other services, if needed, she says.

Women who have been sexually assaulted should not underestimate the “imprints” the trauma can leave on their brains and bodies. If you have been the victim of a sexual assault do not hesitate to turn to help: psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, EMDR therapy.

Additionally, due to the increased risk to a woman’s heart and blood vessels, it is especially important for women with a history of sexual abuse to pay attention to other risk factors for these conditions. They are mainly: hypertension, blood sugar and cholesterol.




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