By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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Mexican women who experience violence as adults may be at higher risk for heart attacks and strokes, a new study suggests.

The findings add to growing evidence that exposure to violence is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease — an outcome researchers say underscores the need to prevent violence worldwide.

In the study, published Thursday in the Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers analyzed health data from 634 middle-aged women who were schoolteachers in rural southern Mexico. Nearly 40 percent of women reported having been physically or sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.

Victims of violence had an increased risk of narrowing in the carotid arteries, the main artery on each side of the neck that carries blood to the brain. This narrowing, detected with ultrasound imaging, can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

“For women, unfortunately, for this particular exposure, I don’t think there’s anything they can do to prevent it,” said Martin Lajous, Sc.D., the study’s senior author and a researcher at the National Institute of Public Health, the federal public health agency in Mexico.

“Prevention has really more to do with public policies and dissemination that violence against women exists and that it can have not just immediate consequences, but consequences to their long-term health,” he said.

Violent crimes in Mexico have increased in recent years, according to the study. For example, the rate of homicides in Mexico has increased since 2007, according to statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The connection between violence and cardiovascular health hasn’t been widely studied in Mexico, but Lajous said the new findings strongly indicate violence is a public health problem in his country, including violence toward children. About 13 percent of women in the study said they experienced violence before age 16.

Although Lajous’ study didn’t find a significant link between violence during childhood and cardiovascular risk, other studies have. Policies, he said, are needed in Mexico “to prevent violence against vulnerable groups, which are women and children.”

The study also found women who had experienced violence were more likely to smoke, be overweight or obese, or have high cholesterol. Lajous said his research could be important for American researchers to consider when studying the health of Mexicans who have emigrated to the United States.

In the United States, the research community recently stepped up its efforts to study violence and cardiovascular health, said Shakira Suglia, Sc.D., an associate professor in the school of public health at Emory University. Suglia, who was not involved in the new study, has researched how violence and other stressors affect health in U.S. adults and children.

Often, she said, victims of violence don’t eat healthy and don’t keep doctor’s appointments or stick to treatment plans for health problems. Doctors must take the time to find out what is happening in patients’ lives to better understand the relationship between someone’s social circumstances and health, Suglia said.

A 2015 review of 30 studies about violence and cardiovascular disease found that, contrary to the current study, exposure to violence during childhood was associated with an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. The findings were mixed for exposure to violence as an adult.

Suglia coauthored the review study and said it is perhaps more important for researchers to observe how violent experiences in childhood affect health during the early years because a young victim’s unhealthy coping behaviors may be the reason for poor health as an adult.

“Obviously, sometime between childhood and adulthood there is a lot that’s going on that we just don’t know much about,” Suglia said.