Girls who were severely abused as children have higher risks for heart attacks, heart disease and stroke as adults, a new study says.
Women who experienced repeated episodes of forced sex in childhood or adolescence had a 62 percent higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease as adults, compared with women who hadn't suffered such abuse, according to the study.
"Women who experience abuse need to take special care of their physical and emotional well-being to reduce their risk of chronic disease," study researcher Janet Rich-Edwards, of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said in a statement.
Edwards and colleagues studied questionnaire responses from 67,102 primarily white female nurses enrolled in the United States Nurses' Health Study II, which was conducted between 1989 and 2007. Of the women surveyed, 11 percent reported forced sexual activity, and 9 percent reported severe physical abuse, as children or teens.
Physical abuse and cardiovascular disease
The link between severe sexual abuse and stroke was stronger than that between such abuse and heart attack, according to the study.
The researchers also found that severe physical abuse in childhood or adolescence was associated with a 45 percent increase in the risk of experiencing heart attacks or strokes.
The study found no increase in heart disease or stroke associated with mild to moderate physical or sexual abuse.
"The single biggest factor explaining the link between severe child abuse and adult cardiovascular disease was the tendency of abused girls to have gained more weight throughout adolescence and into adulthood," Rich-Edwards said.
Other factors at work
The researchers found that risk factors such as adult body mass index, smoking, alcohol use, hypertension and diabetes accounted for 41 percent of the link between severe physical abuse and cardiovascular disease, and 37 percent of the link between sexual molestation and cardiovascular disease events.
"These traditional cardiovascular risk factors explain about 40 percent of the association we see between abuse and cardiovascular disease — which suggests that other factors may play an important role, such as increased stress reactivity among people with a history of abuse," Rich-Edwards said.
The findings are to be presented at the American Heart Association's meeting this week in Orlando, Fla. The study authors noted that more research needs to be done using data from diverse socio-demographic groups.
Pass it on: Girls that were repeated sexually molested or severely physically abused may have higher risks for heart attacks, heart disease and stroke as adults.