Scientists used data from the Center for Disease Control's 2010 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey of 5095 men and 7768 women aged 18 and over in order to identify gender-specific differences.
Results showed 57 men and 154 women were sexually abused before the age of 18 by someone they considered close to them. A diagnosis of a heart attack or myocardial infarction was received by 377 males and 285 females.
Esme Fuller-Thomson, head author, Professor and Sandra Rotman Chair at University of Toronto's Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, said that guys who reported being sexually abused as a child were especially susceptible to having a heart attack at an older age.
"We had expected that the abuse-heart attack link would be due to unhealthy behaviors in sexual abuse survivors, such as higher rates of alcohol use or smoking, or increased levels of general stress and poverty in adulthood when compared to non-abused males."
After adjusting for possible risk factors for heart attack, such as race, obesity, age, physical inactivity, education level, smoking, diabetes mellitus, and household income, a three times increased risk of heart attack was still found.
Authors are unsure why abused women do not have higher odds of heart attack, like men do. Although, the findings do suggest that the link between sexual abuse in childhood and physical health problems in adulthood may be only gender-specific, Sarah Brennenstuhl, Ph.D. candidate and co-author, said.
"For example, it is possible that females adopt different coping strategies than males as women are more likely to get the support and counseling needed to deal with their sexual abuse."
Before any conclusive decisions can be made, further research needs to be done to replicate these findings, advised Fuller-Thompson.
"If other researchers find a similar association, one possible explanation is that adverse child experiences become biologically embedded in the way individuals react to stress throughout their life, particularly with respect to the production of cortisol, the hormone associated with the "fight-or-flight" response. Cortisol is also implicated in the development of cardiovascular diseases."
Written by Sarah Glynn