CHICAGO - Women who were repeatedly sexually abused as girls have a 62 per cent higher risk of heart problems later in life compared with women who were not abused, US researchers said on Sunday.
The findings, presented at the American Heart Association meeting in Orlando, Florida, underscored the lasting physical effects of early sexual abuse.
Much of the increased risk was related to coping strategies among abuse survivors such as overeating, alcohol use and smoking.
"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," Janet Rich-Edwards of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, who led the study, said in a statement.
The team analyzed data from a study of more than 67,000 nurses. Nine per cent of these women had reported severe physical abuse and 11 per cent reported being raped in their childhood or adolescence.
The team found that repeated episodes of forced sex in childhood or adolescence translated into a 62 per cent higher risk of heart attacks and strokes later in life.
Physical abuse also took a toll. Women who had been beaten in their youth had a 45 per cent higher risk of heart trouble.
There was no increased heart risk in women who reported mild to moderate physical or sexual abuse.
Much of the effect was related to higher rates of obesity, smoking, alcohol use, high blood pressure and diabetes, which accounted for 41 per cent of the increased risk of heart problems among women who had been physically abused and 37 per cent of the association with sexual abuse, the team said.
The findings suggest severe physical and sexual abuse are significant risk factors for future heart disease, and women and their doctors need to take steps to reduce this risk.
"We need to learn more about specific psychological, lifestyle, and medical interventions to improve the health of abuse survivors." Rich-Edwards said in a statement.
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