Traumatic experiences may raise women’s heart disease risk


Experiencing a high number of traumatic events could increase a woman’s risk of developing heart disease, especially after menopause, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that women who reported at least three traumatic experiences in their lifetime had poorer endothelial function than those who had fewer traumatic experiences.

Endothelial function refers to how well the endothelium – or the layer of epithelial cells that lines the interior of the heart and blood vessels – helps to regulate the constriction and relaxation of blood vessels.

Endothelial dysfunction is a considered a risk factor for heart disease. Previous research has shown that it often precedes the development of atherosclerosis, or the hardening of the arteries, and can lead to high blood pressure.

The new study – led by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania – suggests that traumatic experiences could increase the risk of endothelial dysfunction in women, particularly for those who are postmenopausal.

Lead study author Dr. Rebecca Thurston and colleagues recently presented their findings at The North American Menopause (NAMS) Society Annual Meeting, held in Philadelphia, PA.

Trauma and endothelial dysfunction

Past studies have looked at the association between mental stress and risk of endothelial function, but Dr. Thurston and team say that few studies have looked at how trauma influences this risk.

To address this research gap, the investigators analyzed the data of 272 women who were either postmenopausal or perimenopausal. None of the women smoked.

Each woman reported how many traumatic events they had experienced during their lifetime. Such events included sexual harassment, the death of a child, being in a motor vehicle accident, experiencing a natural disaster, or being physically assaulted.

The team found that women who reported experiencing at least three traumatic events in their lifetime had poorer endothelial function than those who had fewer traumatic experiences, suggesting that they may be at greater risk of heart disease.

Heart disease is the number one killer for men and women in the United States, being responsible for around 610,000 deaths in the country every year.

According to Dr. Thurston, the team’s findings “underscore the importance of psychosocial factors, such as trauma exposure, in the development of heart disease risk in midlife women.”

Dr. JoAnn Pinkerton, executive director of the NAMS, believes that physicians should take these study findings into account when assessing women’s risk of heart disease.

Given the large percentage of postmenopausal women affected by heart disease, this is an important study that should remind healthcare providers of the need to thoroughly discuss a woman’s history beyond simply asking about her physical health.”

Dr. JoAnn Pinkerton


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