Study links experiences of sexual harassment and assault with high blood pressure


A new study by the National Institute of Health (NIH) found woman who experienced sexual violence were more likely to develop high blood pressure during a seven-year follow-up period than those who did not experience sexual violence.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, was led by Rebecca Lawn, PhD, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. For their investigation, researchers used data from a longitudinal study of nurses which started in 1989, and collected data on the participants’ socioeconomic status, medical history, and behaviors. In 2008, a subset of participants were asked about their history of sexual violence, which included workplace harassment and sexual assault. Using this subset, Lawn’s team analyzed 33,127 women who were aged 43 to 64 in 2008, had no previous history of cardiovascular or cerebrovascular disease, and no diagnosis of high blood pressure. After information regarding their health and whether they had experienced sexual violence was collected in 2008, researchers followed up with the participants in 2015.

The study’s results showed about 23 percent of the women had experienced sexual assault, 12 percent had experienced workplace sexual harassment, and 6 percent had experienced both. During the follow up period, 21 percent of women developed high blood pressure. After accounting for the subject’s health and behaviors, researchers found that those who had experienced sexual violence were more likely to develop high blood pressure than those who had not. Women who had experienced both sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment had the highest risk of high blood pressure, according to researchers. Researchers did not find a strong link between non-sexual trauma and high blood pressure.

The study's results indicate an association between experiences of sexual violence and high blood pressure. While this investigation had limitations as it observed only nurses and the information was self-reported, it brings attention to the effects that sex-related trauma can have on human health. Integrative physicians may want to refer to this study and take special precautions to prevent high blood pressure when treating survivors of sexual violence.