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Wear and Tear: How Violence Affects The Female Body

New research shows a link between intergenerational abuse and earlier onset of menopause.

By Kira Schwarz ‘22

It’s no secret that chronic stress can deteriorate women’s health, but research is only just beginning to explore the extent of its harm. In an effort to answer more of these questions, sociology professor Holly Foster and her team have found that a mother finding out about the abuse of her child can affect her physiology so substantially it causes earlier menopause. 

Prior research on the topic of violence investigated how women’s own experiences with abuse influenced when menopause, or vasomotor symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats, began. The problem Foster found with this research was that it only focused on direct exposure to abuse. She explained that prior research has underestimated just how severely violence can influence menopausal timing.

“Our study therefore investigated whether there was an additional independent influence on maternal reproductive aging from a mother’s children’s abuse, as an intergenerational influence, even after taking into account other relevant factors,” Foster explained. “Identifying risk factors is important for health problem prevention efforts, since an earlier age of menopause is associated with higher risks of osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease. This makes it a significant women’s health and public health issue.”

Other influences on women’s timing of menopause and exposure to violence were taken into account during Foster’s study. Socio-economic status, education, race, ethnicity, gender, smoking, obesity, poor health, marital status, and even maternal incarceration experiences were all considered as covariates.

Participants in the data Foster and her colleagues analyzed from a national study additionally showed that maternal smoking in 1995 was associated with an earlier age of menopause in 2016-2018. However, it was also found that participants who reported healthy habits during a pregnancy in 1995 were more likely to go through menopause later in life.

“The findings of our study support calls to screen for adverse childhood experiences [ACEs] by primary care physicians,” Foster said. “In the context of reproductive aging, further screening may be needed by obstetricians and gynecologists for violence exposure in particular among the ACEs questions. Using a more finite and focused set of ACEs screening women on abuse specifically may be more efficient when providing reproductive health care to women over the life course to menopause. Our results also indicate that asking mothers about their children’s ACEs is warranted in this context, particularly regarding any sexual abuse experiences among them.”

Foster said the study underlines the roles women in society are expected to uphold and how their health is influenced by them. One example Foster gave is mothers feeling especially responsible for protecting their children from harm, given systemic societal gendered pressures. Although the role of a mother may cause stress from any violence their children experience, the stress may be exacerbated for sexual abuse as this could be an “empathic threat.” 

“The findings speak to the importance of developments like the recent Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act in March 2022 that will be of benefit to women, but also to society at large,” Foster explained. “This Act makes prevention and intervention resources available to survivors to support these efforts. This kind of legislation recognizes the harms of violence in women’s lives, but our study underscores how the scope of violence exposure compromising women’s health also includes intergenerational violence experiences of their children.”

Foster’s future plans for research seek to find ways women can shore up against the impact of violence exposure, both direct and intergenerational in women’s lives. She hopes that this next step will benefit practitioners, policy makers, and the stigma around violence, reproductive aging, and women’s health.