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Sexual Assault And Workplace Sexual Harassment Linked To Health Issues

Nam Y. Huh
Pictured is Isabel Escobar, who was born in Guatemala and lives in Chicago. She has cleaned homes for years in the U.S. and suffered sexual harassment on the job.

Middle-aged women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted, at work or otherwise, are more likely to have mental or physical health problems, according to new research from the University of Pittsburgh.

The study looked at 304 nonsmoking women between the ages of 40 and 60, controlling for several factors like race, age and obesity.

Researchers found that women who had been sexually harassed at work were 9 percent more likely to have high blood pressure, when compared to women who have not experienced this trauma. Hypertension is a risk factor for several medical conditions, including heart failure, stroke and kidney disease

Senior author Rebecca Thurston runs the Women’s Biobehavioral Health Laboratory at Pitt. She said cardiovascular issues that arise during middle age can precipitate problems like heart attacks, which don’t usually occur until someone reaches their late 60s.

Credit Women's Biobehavioral Health Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh

“When we’re thinking about women’s cardiovascular health,” she said, “we’re oftentimes looking at midlife as an important opportunity for intervention and prevention.”

The study found women who experience workplace sexual harassment are also more 14 percent more likely to have trouble sleeping. Which, in addition to affecting mood and work performance, can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Like workplace sexual harassment victims, researchers found that women who are survivors of sexual assault are more likely to have issues sleeping. Compared to those who haven’t been assaulted, survivors are 16 percent more likely to sleep poorly.

Credit Women's Biobehavioral Health Lab at the University of Pittsburgh

The study found that sexual assault victims are 14 percent more likely to have depression and 18 percent more likely to have anxiety. While this group didn’t have higher rates of hypertension, Thurston said they might have other health issues that the study didn’t examine.

“Mental health and physical health are almost impossible to fully separate when you consider over a life course,” she said. “Poor mental health outcomes do you set you on a course of potentially poor physical health and disability as you age.”

In light of these findings, Thurston said interventions to prevent harassment and sexual assault might lead to better health outcomes for women.

The study was published Wednesday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

90.5 WESA receives funding from Pitt.