Sexual Assault, Workplace Sexual Harassment Can Negatively Affect Women’s Heart Health

closeup of a women's eye

Key takeaways:

  • Sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment may increase the long-term risk of high blood pressure in women.
  • High blood pressure is linked to a greater risk of heart disease.
  • Reducing violence against women could improve long-term heart health.

Sexual violence has numerous negative consequences for women, and recent research reveals declining heart health is one of them. Women who experienced sexual assault, workplace sexual harassment or both were at greater risk of developing high blood pressure — a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, the No. 1 killer of women, according to research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Researchers analyzed data from the Nurses’ Health Study II, which began in 1989 with 116,429 U.S. nurses ages 24-42 enrolled. In a 2008 follow-up, they measured the incidence of sexual violence, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression symptoms and other trauma exposure among 54,703 of the study’s original participants.

Of the 33,127 women analyzed from that group, 95% were non-Hispanic white and an average 53 years old at the beginning of the 2008 follow-up. Before the 2008 follow-up, the women either had no history of high blood pressure or had not taken medication for high blood pressure.

Researchers found:

  • About 1 in 5 (nearly 7,100) of the women self-reported they had developed high blood pressure at the seven-year follow-up in 2015. Their condition was validated with medical records.
  • Lifetime instances of sexual assault were 23%, 12% for workplace sexual harassment and 6% experiencing both.
  • Women who reported experiencing both sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment had the highest risk for developing high blood pressure, with a 21% increase. Women who reported experiencing workplace sexual harassment had a 15% higher risk. Women who reported experiencing sexual assault had an 11% higher risk.

The study highlights the importance of investigating sexual violence, including in the workplace, in women’s health research.

Why blood pressure matters

High blood pressure is often called a “silent killer” because it usually has no obvious symptoms. Nearly 43% of women 20 years and older in the U.S. have high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association’s Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics.

Blood pressure is the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your blood vessels. This pressure — blood pressure — is the result of two forces: The first force (systolic pressure) occurs as blood pumps out of the heart and into the arteries that are part of the circulatory system. The second force (diastolic pressure) is created as the heart rests between heart beats. These two forces are represented by numbers in a blood pressure reading.

High blood pressure, also called HBP or hypertension, is when your blood pressure is consistently too high, defined as 130/80 mm Hg or higher. It’s an important modifiable risk factor for heart disease. High blood pressure can’t be cured but can be managed with lifestyle changes and medication.

Typically, high blood pressure develops slowly and causes harm over time by making the heart and blood vessels work harder and less efficiently. When left untreated, damage to the circulatory system is a major contributing factor to heart attack, stroke and other health problems.