For women in midlife, exposure to sexual harassment and sexual assault is widespread and associated with higher blood pressure (BP, harassment), poorer mental health (assault), and poorer sleep (both), according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Rebecca C. Thurston, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh, and associates investigated the relationship between history of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and BP, depressed mood, anxiety, and quality of sleep among midlife women.

A total of 304 nonsmoking women aged 40 to 60 years (mean age, 54 years) with no history of cardiovascular disease (CVD) underwent physical analysis including BP, height, and weight measurement, as well as medical history assessment. A psychosocial questionnaire was included to record workplace sexual harassment, sexual assault, depression, anxiety, and sleep quality. Sexual harassment was identified as experiencing physical or verbal sexual harassment in the workplace, and sexual assault was identified as unwanted sexual contact.

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Of the cohort, 19% of women (n=58) reported having experienced sexual harassment at work, and 22% of women (n=67) reported a history of sexual assault.

For women who were not taking antihypertensive medications, the odds of stage 1 or 2 hypertension were significantly greater for sexual harassment (odds ratio [OR], 2.36); odds of clinically poor sleep were also associated with sexual harassment (OR, 1.89).

Sexual assault was significantly associated with greater odds of clinically increased depressive symptoms, anxiety, and poor sleep (OR; 2.86, 2.26, and 2.15, respectively).

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“Future work should consider whether preventing or mitigating sexual harassment and sexual assault can improve women’s mental health and cardiovascular health,” the authors concluded. “Given the high prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, addressing these prevalent and potent social exposure may be critical to promoting health and preventing disease in women.”


Thurston RC, Chang Y, Matthews KA, von Känel R, Koenen K. Association of sexual harassment and sexual assault with midlife women’s mental and physical health [published October 3, 2018]. JAMA Intern Med. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.4886

This article originally appeared on Clinical Advisor