Traumatic events like physical assault and childhood abuse don’t just take a toll on mental health, according to a study linking a history of trauma to increased risk of heart attack and stroke in women.
Published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, this study analyzed the relationship between posttraumatic stress disorder and risk for heart events. Posttraumatic stress disorder, often referred to as PTSD, is a common stress disorder that can occur after exposure to traumatic events. Research suggests that PTSD is twice as common in women than men, but few studies have investigated the long-term impact of trauma on heart risks.
To learn more, researchers analyzed data from the Nurses’ Health Study II—one of the largest and longest running studies of factors that influence women’s health. Since 1989, nearly 50,000 female nurses between the ages of 25 and 42 have enrolled in the study.
Upon enrollment, participants completed a questionnaire about exposure to past trauma, such as sexual assault, natural disaster and military combat. Subjects were also screened for PTSD based on seven common symptoms, such as flashbacks, feeling emotionally numb and feeling tense or “on-edge.” Researchers then followed participants for 20 years, tracking their health and using medical records to identify any heart events like heart attack and stroke.
After analysis, researchers found that women with four or more symptoms of PTSD had 60% greater risk of heart attack and stroke compared to women with no trauma exposure. Interestingly, women with a history of trauma but no PTSD still had 45% higher risk of heart events than those with no traumatic history.
Upon further analysis, researchers found that risk factors and health behaviors may explain the link between trauma and increased heart risks. For example, women with PTSD may be more likely to smoke or drink, which can increase risk for heart disease.
Based on study findings, authors believe that PTSD and exposure to trauma may be modifiable risk factors for heart disease, similar to diet and exercise. Currently, major health organizations like the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association do not recognize trauma or PTSD as an official risk factor for heart disease. Authors argue that recognizing and treating these conditions may help improve heart health, especially in women.