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Sexual assault and harassment linked to hypertension, depression, and anxiety



Sexual harassment and assault may have significant health impacts on women in midlife, including greater risk of hypertension, poor sleep, depression, and anxiety, research suggests.

A young woman recieving a blood pressure measurement. thodonal/Thinkstock

In the Oct. 3 online edition of JAMA Internal Medicine, a study of 304 women aged 40-60 years showed that 19% reported a history of workplace sexual harassment, 22% reported a history of sexual assault, and 10% reported both. The report was presented simultaneously at the North American Menopause Society annual meeting in San Diego.

The researchers found that those with a history of sexual assault had an almost threefold higher odds of clinically elevated depressive symptoms (OR, 2.86, P = .003), and more than twofold greater odds of anxiety and poor sleep (OR, 2.26, P = .006 and OR, 2.15, P = .007 respectively).

Women who reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace – and who were not taking antihypertensive medication – were more than twice as likely to have stage 1 or 2 hypertension, compared with women who had not experienced sexual harassment (OR, 2.36, P = .03). They also had 89% higher odds of poor sleep consistent with clinical insomnia (P = .03).

These associations all persisted even after adjustment for demographic and biomedical factors such as age, ethnicity, body mass index, snoring, and the use of antihypertensive, antidepressant, and anti-anxiety medications.

“Given the high prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, addressing these prevalent and potent social exposures may be critical to promoting health and preventing disease in women,” wrote Rebecca C. Thurston, PhD, of the department of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, and her coauthors.

Dr. Rebecca Thurston, department of psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh

Dr. Rebecca Thurston

They noted that the 1-in-5 rate of sexual harassment or assault seen in the study was actually lower than that seen in national samples, which may be have been because of the exclusion of women who smoked, had undergone hysterectomies, or were using common antidepressants or cardiovascular medications.

“Few characteristics distinguished between women who had been sexually harassed and those who had been sexually assaulted, with the exception that women who were sexually harassed were more highly educated yet more financially strained,” they wrote. “Notably, women who are younger or are in more precarious employment situations are more likely to be harassed, and financially stressed women can lack the financial security to leave abusive work situations.”

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health, National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, and the University of Pittsburgh Clinical and Translational Science Institute. Dr. Thurston declared consultancies for MAS Innovations, Procter & Gamble, and Pfizer, but no other conflicts of interest were declared.

SOURCE: Thurston R et al. JAMA Intern Med. 2018, Oct 3. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.4886.

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