Sexual assault could lead to brain disorders, study suggests

A new study suggests that traumatic experiences, including sexual violence, could be linked to dementia, stroke and other brain disorders.

The University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health recently presented its findings during The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) Annual meeting in Washington, D.C. last week. 

Researchers examined whether traumatic experiences were associated with white matter hyperintensities (WMHs), which are markers of brain small vessel disease which can lead to stroke and other disorders. Researchers said WMHs can be detected decades before the onset of brain disorders. 

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The study involved nearly 150 midlife women with 68% of them reporting to have experienced at least one trauma, with 23% of the women reporting sexual assault. Researchers noted that women with trauma had greater WMH volume than women without trauma. They added that sexual assault was significantly associated with WMH. 

"The results of this study are noteworthy in that sexual assault is an unfortunate, yet all-too-common, experience for women; national data indicate that, on average, up to a third of women have had this experience," Dr. Rebecca Thurston from the University of Pittsburgh and lead author of the study said.

"This distressing experience is not only important for women’s mental health but also their brain health," she continued. "Not only do these results underscore the need for greater prevention of sexual assault, but also provide healthcare professionals with another indicator of who may be at most risk for stroke and dementia later in life."

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According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN, one in six American women has been a victim of attempted or completed rape. Women between 16-19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault, according to RAINN.

Previous studies have also highlighted the link between sexual assault in women’s health. A 2019 study suggested sexual assault and harassment could lead to higher odds of hypertension, clinically poor sleep, clinically significant depressive symptoms and anxiety compared to women who haven’t experienced the trauma. 

This story was reported from Los Angeles.