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Jul 19, 2014 06:57 AM EDT

Childhood Sexual Abuse Increases Risk of Developing Cardiovascular Diseases in Women, Study

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Adults who were sexually abused as children face a heightened risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, according to a University of Pittsburgh study. Researchers said that these women show signs of atherosclerosis, an early indicator of cardiovascular disease.

This is the first study to determine a link between sexual abuse and higher carotid artery intima-media thickness (IMT) - thickening of the inner lining of the arteries that may indicate early atherosclerosis.

Researchers said that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among women in the United States.

For the study, the researchers surveyed 1,400 Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic and Chinese women, between 42 and 52 years old, about childhood and adult physical and sexual abuse. About 16 percent of all participants reported a history of childhood sexual abuse.

Researchers began the study in 1996 and followed these for the next 12 years annually. At the 12th visit, women, transitioning through menopause, underwent carotid artery ultrasound to detect carotid IMT and carotid artery plaque.

Researchers found that a history of childhood sexual abuse, but not childhood physical abuse, causes higher IMT. Plus, nearly 20 percent of sexual abuse occurred among African-Americans.

"These study findings indicate the importance of considering early life stressors on women's later cardiovascular health," said Rebecca C. Thurston, study lead author and associate professor of psychiatry, psychology, epidemiology and clinical and translational science, in a press release.

"Awareness of the long-term mental and physical consequences of sexual abuse in childhood needs to be heightened nationally, particularly among women and health professionals."

Researchers recommend women with a history of childhood sexual abuse to report incidents to their physicians and healthcare providers as child abuse is essential in understanding a woman's cardiovascular risk.     

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