Women’s Experience of Sexual Assault, Workplace Sexual Harassment Linked to High Blood Pressure

A new study from NIH highlights why health research into women’s experiences of sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment is critical.

New findings from NIH found that women who have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, including sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment, were more prone to developing high blood pressure over a 7-year follow-up period, according to a press release.

“Our results showed that women who reported experiencing both sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment had the highest risk of hypertension, suggesting potential compounding effects of multiple sexual violence exposures on women’s cardiovascular health,” said the study lead author Rebecca B. Lawn, PhD, from the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, Boston, in the press release.

Lawn and her team analyzed the connections between lifetime exposure to sexual violence and blood pressure in comparison to the possible impacts of exposure to other types of trauma. The team used data from the Nurses’ Health Study II (NHS II), which is a longitudinal study of adult women in the United States from 1989, enrolling 115,000 nurses in total.

In addition, a NHS II sub-study assessed a group of participants who reported whether they had ever experienced sexual harassment at work, either physical or verbal, and whether they had ever experienced unwanted sexual contact. Exposure to other traumas, such as an accident or a disaster, were also reported.

Specific participants were excluded, including those who were already diagnosed with high blood pressure or were taking medication for high blood pressure from their analyses and women with a history of cardiovascular or cerebrovascular disease. The final sample had 33,127 women who were between the age of 43 to 64 in 2008.

As indicated in the NHS II data, approximately 23% of the women included in the study had experienced sexual assault at some point in their life and 12% had experienced workplace sexual harassment, whereas 6% had experienced both. Meanwhile, about 21% of the women reported developing high blood pressure over the follow-up period from 2008 to 2015.

Women who had experienced sexual assault at any point in their lifetime and those who had experienced workplace sexual harassment were more likely to develop high blood pressure compared with women who had never experienced any type of trauma. The women who had experienced both sexual assault and harassment had the highest risk of developing high blood pressure.

The researchers noted that the risk for high blood pressure attached with lifetime sexual violence is comparable in magnitude to associations with other factors that have received more attention, such as exposure to sexual abuse as a child or adolescent, sleep duration, and exposure to environmental pollutants.

Compared to previous studies, this analysis was able to include data that allowed the researchers to examine multiple types of sexual violence and a range of other possible variables, including other types of trauma. However, this study had limitations that should be focused on in future studies, such as including limited self-report measures for both sexual violence and hypertension that did not capture details regarding severity and timing. Further, the sample was large, but mainly focused on non-Hispanic White women, all of whom share the same profession.

“This study highlights why it’s important for health research to examine women’s experiences of sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment. Future research can build on these findings to determine whether sexual violence and high blood pressure are causally linked and identify possible underlying mechanisms,” said Laura Rowland, PhD, a program chief in the Division of Translational Research at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in the press release.

REFERENCE

Women’s experiences of sexual assault and harassment linked with high blood pressure. NIH. February 22, 2022. Accessed February 23, 2022. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/womens-experiences-sexual-assault-harassment-linked-high-blood-pressure

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