Home Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy Trauma Exposure Linked to Cardiovascular Health Risks in Midlife Women, Study Finds

Trauma Exposure Linked to Cardiovascular Health Risks in Midlife Women, Study Finds

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Researchers have established a significant connection between trauma experienced during childhood or adulthood and the cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health of women during midlife. The insights, drawn from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) and the MsHeart/MsBrain studies, highlight the impact of traumatic experiences, including childhood maltreatment and sexual violence, on women’s health as they approach and undergo menopause.

Trauma exposure in women, prevalent both in childhood and adulthood, has long been associated with mental health issues. However, the new research brings to light the physical health implications of these experiences. The SWAN and MsHeart/MsBrain studies, focusing on midlife women’s health, reveal a connection between trauma exposure and poorer cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health. This includes indicators of subclinical cardiovascular disease, cerebral small vessel disease, and a heightened risk for clinical cardiovascular events. The findings were published in the journal Maturitas.

Childhood maltreatment, particularly sexual abuse, emerges as a significant factor influencing the health of the vasculature. Women with histories of childhood sexual abuse show higher carotid intima media thickness (IMT), a predictor of future clinical cardiovascular disease (CVD). Similarly, women with childhood maltreatment histories have more pronounced subclinical CVD, especially when coupled with menopausal symptoms like sleep disturbances and vasomotor symptoms (VMS).

Lifetime trauma exposure, too, plays a role in cardiovascular health. Women experiencing a higher number of traumatic events, especially three or more, exhibit poorer endothelial function. Again, the presence of short sleep appears to amplify these effects.

Sexual violence, a particularly invasive and intimate form of trauma, shows a strong connection with vascular health. Women who have experienced workplace sexual harassment, sexual assault, or childhood sexual abuse face a greater risk of hypertension, carotid plaque, and accelerated plaque progression.

The research also explores the impact of trauma on cerebrovascular health. Women with a history of trauma, particularly those who have experienced sexual assault, have greater brain white matter hyperintensities (WMHs), markers of small vessel disease linked to increased risks of stroke, dementia, and mortality.

As women age, the progression from subclinical atherosclerosis to clinical CVD events becomes a concern. The studies find that women with histories of childhood abuse, adult abuse, and intimate partner violence (IPV) face a significantly increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, and cardiovascular mortality.

The studies highlight several mechanisms potentially linking trauma exposure to CVD risk. These include inflammation and reduced parasympathetic nervous system influence over the heart, particularly during sleep. Women with trauma histories tend to have higher levels of systemic inflammation and lower heart rate variability, indicating reduced parasympathetic control.

Menopausal symptoms, such as VMS and sleep disturbances, are more prevalent in women with trauma histories. These symptoms are linked to poorer cardiovascular health, suggesting they may amplify the adverse cardiovascular implications of a trauma history.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a major mental health outcome of trauma, also has implications for women’s health. Even subclinical levels of PTSD symptoms are associated with cardiovascular and neurocognitive risk.

The findings of these studies underscore the importance of addressing trauma exposure in healthcare, particularly for midlife women. Understanding an individual’s trauma history can help identify those at risk for adverse cardiovascular outcomes. Screening for mental health sequelae of trauma, such as PTSD, depression, and substance use disorders, should be routine in medical settings. Managing menopausal symptoms effectively is also crucial for improving overall health outcomes for these women.

These studies suggest that a history of trauma, particularly when experienced multiple times, can have lasting effects across various bodily systems, increasing the likelihood of a more symptomatic menopause transition and greater CVD risk as women age. This highlights the need for focused attention and intervention for trauma-exposed populations and emphasises the importance of trauma prevention for protecting women’s mental and physical health during midlife and beyond.

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