A new study published in Stroke – a journal of the American Heart Association – finds that women who were sexually abused in childhood may be more likely to have higher thickening of the inner lining of the arteries in middle age – an early indication of atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis is a condition whereby the arteries harden or thicken, causing an accumulation of plaque. The build-up of plaque can partially or completely block an artery, restricting blood flow. Atherosclerosis can lead to a number of complications, including heart attack, heart disease and peripheral artery disease.

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Women who reported a history of sexual abuse in childhood had higher thickening of the inner lining of the arteries in midlife – an early indication of atherosclerosis.

This latest study – led by Rebecca C. Thurston, associate professor of psychiatry, psychology, epidemiology and clinical and translational science and director of the Women’s Behavioral and Health Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, PA – is the first to link childhood sexual abuse to increased thickening of the arteries’ inner lining, known as carotid artery intima-media thickness (IMT), according to the team.

Thurston and colleagues began their study back in 1996, analyzing 1,400 Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic and Chinese women ages 42-52 who were a part of the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN).

At study baseline, all women were asked about any sexual or physical abuse they had experienced during childhood and adulthood, and were measured for a number of well-known risk factors for heart disease.

The researchers monitored the women through annual visits over the next 12 years. On the final visit, the women underwent a carotid artery ultrasound that disclosed carotid artery IMT and any carotid artery plaque accumulation.

Of all women involved in the study, 16% reported a history of sexual abuse in childhood. Such abuse was highest among African-American women, at 20%.

The team found that women who reported a history of childhood sexual abuse had higher carotid artery IMT in midlife, compared with those who reported no history of sexual abuse in childhood. Physical abuse during childhood was not associated with increased carotid artery IMT in midlife.

Commenting on the study results, Thurston says:

These study findings indicate the importance of considering early life stressors on women’s later cardiovascular health. Awareness of the long-term mental and physical consequences of sexual abuse in childhood needs to be heightened nationally, particularly among women and health professionals.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 20% of women report being sexually abused as a child.

Thurston adds that since child abuse may be important in determining a woman’s cardiovascular risk, women who have a history of sexual abuse in childhood should tell their doctors and health care providers, and doctors should also ask women whether they have a history of childhood sexual abuse.

Child abuse may not only have implications for cardiovascular health. Medical News Today recently reported on a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, suggesting that child abuse may have serious implications for brain development.