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Sexual assault linked to brain damage in women, study finds

The study found that women who suffered sexual assault showed signs of brain damage linked to

Sexual assault linked to brain damage in women, study finds
Brain damage tumor headache - stock photo/Getty Images

Sexual assault can be incredibly traumatic and now a new study has revealed that women who have been sexually assaulted have a higher risk of developing a type of brain damage. The study carried out at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health found that brain damage resulting from sexual assault is linked to cognitive decline, dementia, and stroke. "It could be either childhood sexual abuse or adult sexual assault," said Rebecca Thurston, the study author who's a professor and director of the Women's Biobehavioral Health Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, reported CNN. "Based upon population data, most women have their sexual assaults when they are in early adolescence and early adulthood," she added, "so these are likely early experiences that we're seeing the marks of later in life."

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There has already been a lot of studies that point to the long-term effects that sexual assault can have on a victim's body and mind. The study that was presented at the annual meeting of the North American Menopause Society highlighted that sexual assault was one of the biggest issues faced by women. "We need to keep our attention on this issue of sexual violence against women and not let it fall off the radar screen of society, because it continues to be a major women's health issue," said Thurston.



The study monitored the brain scans of 145 midlife women with no prior history of cardiovascular disease, stroke, or dementia. Among the participants of the study, 68% had experienced trauma and for 23% of them, they suffered trauma as a result of sexual assault. The authors looked out for small white spots on white matter hyperintensities in the brain scans, which are an indication of disruptions in blood flow that have left damage in the brain. "Using brain imaging, we found that women with a history of sexual assault have greater white matter hyperintensities in the brain, which is an indicator of small vessel disease that has been linked to stroke, dementia, cognitive decline, and mortality," said Thurston.


The study had controlled for other diseases and factors that could affect the development of white matter hyperintensities, including age, hypertension, smoking, and diabetes. The study that is all set to be published in the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior also controlled for emotional disorders, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. Thurston pointed out that the increase in white matter hyperintensities wasn't explained by these subjective symptoms of distress. "It's almost like your body has a memory that may not be fully manifesting through psychological symptoms. The sexual assault also leaves footprints of the trauma in our brains and our bodies," said Thurston. 

Thurston said that physicians should be taking into account sexual trauma when assessing patients and this could help to monitor women's cardiovascular risk as they age. She added that it's never easy for women to speak up on their sexual trauma, saying they needed to feel empowered to speak up. "Absolutely share this information with your health care providers," said Thurston. "This is not your fault, so please share what you are comfortable with disclosing. It's important information that has implications for your physical health and your emotional well-being." Other studies have found that sexual trauma is also linked to higher levels of triglycerides and blood pressure in midlife, and a three-fold greater risk of developing carotid plaque, all key risk factors for heart disease.

If you are being subjected to sexual assault, or know of anyone who is, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673).

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