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The results of a new study show that abuse may affect the function of the ovaries. Researchers have found that women who have been physically or sexually abused in their childhood or adolescence are more likely to have higher levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which plays a key role in ovarian function. Furthermore, this disturbance of ovarian function due to abuse may potentially lead to premature menopause—a risk factor for heart disease.

The study was conducted by lead researcher Jenifer E. Allsworth of Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, Rhode Island, and published in the November 2001 issue of Epidemiology. In March 1999, 732 women between the ages of 36 and 45 from the Harvard Study of Moods and Cycles study completed a survey of lifetime experience of physical and sexual harm. The researchers measured FSH and estrogen levels in the women at the beginning of the study.

Allsworth and her colleagues found that 59% of the women who completed the survey reported an incidence or fear of abuse in their past. The researchers were able to link physical and sexual abuse inflicted during childhood or adolescence to higher levels of FSH, compared to women who reported that they were never abused. (FSH is a hormone involved in the menstrual cycle that stimulates the maturation of reproductive eggs; FSH levels typically rise when a woman nears menopause as the body attempts to trigger the maturation of the remaining eggs). Furthermore, women in their forties who were abused at any time (childhood, adolescence, or adulthood) were more likely to have lower estrogen levels compared with women who were never abused.

According to the researchers, the study’s findings show that abuse can affect the body’s hormonal system. In this case, physical and sexual abuse alter ovary function, which may possibly lead to an earlier onset of menopause since FSH and estrogen levels have been affected. This is particularly alarming, according to Allsworth and her colleagues, because going through menopause early increases a woman’s risk for heart disease.

While further research is needed to better understand how menopause affects heart disease risk, it is thought that the loss of estrogen at menopause puts woman at greater risk for heart problems. Researchers believe that estrogen helps a woman’s arteries to expand when they become blocked with hardened fatty build-up, allowing the blood to flow around the blockage. As men age and their arteries become blocked, the body develops new arteries to serve as back-up (or collateral) blood routes. However, women do not develop these collateral blood supplies as they age since, with estrogen, their blood vessels can expand to accommodate blockage. Thus, the thought is that when a woman’s estrogen production decreases significantly at menopause, her arteries tend to lose their flexibility and her risk of heart disease increases significantly since no collateral blood supply is developed. The earlier a woman reaches menopause, the sooner her risk of heart disease increases.

While the study’s findings are interesting and help researchers begin to establish a connection between physical abuse and ovary function, the results are preliminary (ironically, early age at menopause is associated with a decreased risk of ovarian cancer). There are many other, more established risk factors for heart disease, including:

  • Advancing age
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Sex (males are at higher risk than females)
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Lack of physical activity

Studies also show that women tend to underestimate their risk of heart disease. Therefore, it is important for to women receive regular physical examinations so any potential problems can be detected early.

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