Women who have experienced sexual violence are more likely to develop disorders of blood flow in the brain, which can contribute to conditions such as dementia and strokes.
More than one in three women in North America has experienced sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. This is based on statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Globally, the number is roughly the same: an estimated 736 million women around the world “have been exposed to intimate partner violence, sexual violence without a partner, or both at least once in their lives,” writes the UN organization UN Women. It cites a study by the World Health Organization.
That is 30% of all girls and women over the age of 15.
So the problem is pervasive. And now a US study has found that women who experience sexual violence may be confronted with more injuries than the injuries they sustained during the attacks, as well as with the psychological consequences such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression. You may also be at higher risk for a certain type of brain disease, which is a precursor to dementia and stroke.
“Sexual assault is an unfortunate but all too common experience for women,” says Rebecca Thurston of the University of Pittsburgh, lead author of the study.
“This stressful experience is important not only for women’s mental health, but also for the health of their brains. This work is an important step in identifying a new risk factor for stroke and dementia in women, ”says Thurston.
Trauma can disrupt blood flow in the brain
Thurston is Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Women’s Biobehavioural Health Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh. She presented the results of the study at the 2021 meeting of the North American Menopause Society. It is published in the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior.
For the study, Thurston and her team examined 145 women of “midlife” age in the USA. Of the participants, 68% said they had had at least one trauma, the most common trauma being sexual assault, of which 23% of women reported.
The researchers wanted to find out if there was a link between trauma and white matter hyperintensities, which are signs of circulatory disorders and can cause damage to the brain.
White matter hyperintensities show up as small white spots on brain scans. They are early indicators of dementia, the risk of stroke or similar diseases. And they can be seen decades before these conditions set in.
Brain scans of the study participants showed that the women who had experienced trauma had more white matter hyperintensities than women without trauma – and that the specific traumatic experience associated with the white matter hyperintensities was sexual assault.
Important data to identify high risk at an early stage
In an earlier study from 2018, Thurston found that women who had experienced sexual assault were at significantly higher risk of developing depression or anxiety and sleeping worse than women who had not been assaulted.
Depression, anxiety, and insomnia have all been linked to poor overall health.
For example, mental disorders can be linked to heart disease, and lack of sleep can be linked to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
Thurston says the new study builds on these earlier findings. Even after taking mental or other health conditions into account, the researchers in the new study found that women who were attacked still had more white matter hyperintensity – regardless of whether they developed other health problems such as depression or PTSD after the attack had.
The bottom line is that these early signs of dementia can be directly linked to the attack, according to the study.
According to Thurston, the study shows that better prevention of sexual assault is needed, but it also shows doctors that there is another indicator to consider when assessing a patient’s risk of stroke and dementia later in life.
Stephanie Faubion, medical director of the North American Menopause Society, says the new study can play an important role in preventive health care.
“Detecting early warning signs of stroke and dementia is critical to effective intervention,” says Faubion.
“Studies like this one provide important information about the long-term effects of traumatic experiences on a woman’s general well-being and mental health.”
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