Report: Sexual assault, harassment raises women’s risk for hypertension

The consequences of sexual harassment and assault—the former of which up to 81 percent of women say they’ve experienced at some point in their lifetime—aren’t just mental, according to a study presented at this week’s North American Menopause Society (NAMS) symposium in San Diego. They’re also physical, putting women at a higher risk for hypertension and sleep disorders.

The study, which was published simultaneously in JAMA Internal Medicine, explored the impact of the #MeToo movement on the cardiovascular health of 300 women. Of those women, 19 percent reported having experienced workplace sexual harassment and 22 percent said they were victims of at least one sexual assault. Ten percent of women said they’d experienced both.

“It is widely understood that sexual harassment and assault can impact women’s lives and how they function, but this study also evaluates the implications of these experiences for women’s health,” lead author Rebecca Thurston, PhD, said in a NAMS release. Thurston, a member of the NAMS board of trustees, is also a professor of psychiatry, psychology and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Thurston’s team said the repercussions of the #MeToo movement have been “largely positive” since they’ve brought awareness to the issue of sexual misconduct in the U.S., but researchers have failed to consider the long-term health consequences of that misconduct on victims.

A study presented at NAMS last year and led by Thurston suggested traumatic experiences, including sexual assault, car accidents and living through a natural disaster, increased the risk for heart disease in menopausal women. A 2015 trial found women who’d experienced sexual trauma were at an elevated risk for CVD as a whole, but neither project investigated assault as an independent variable.

In their present study, Thurston et al. found women with a history of sexual harassment were not only more likely to be college-educated—they also faced a 2.36-fold increased risk of developing stage 1 or 2 hypertension and a 1.89-fold increased risk of experiencing clinically poor sleep. Victims of sexual assault were also nearly three times more likely to report depression, two times more likely to report anxiety and faced greater financial strain. 

JoAnn Pinkerton, executive director for NAMS, said in the release Thurston et al.’s study underlines the importance of considering patients’ mental symptoms alongside their physical ones.

“The results of this study should remind healthcare providers of the need to ask questions and fully understand their patients’ histories when diagnosing and prescribing treatment for such problems as depression and sleep disorders,” she said.