Published:  2020

The relationship of trauma exposure to heart rate variability during wake and sleep in midlife women

Authors:  Rebecca C. Thurston, Mary Y. Carson, Karestan C. Koenen, Yuefang Chang, Karen A. Matthews, Roland von Känel, J. Richard Jennings

Tags:  cardiovascular, heart rate variability, middle-age adults, social factors, stress

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Traumatic experiences are common and linked to cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk, yet the mechanisms underlying these relationships is less well understood. Few studies have examined trauma exposure and its relation to autonomic influence over cardiac function, a potential pathway linking trauma exposure to CVD risk. Investigating autonomic influence over cardiac function during both wake and sleep is critical, given particular links of sleep autonomic function to cardiovascular health. Among midlife women, we tested whether trauma exposure would be related to lower high frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV), an index of vagal influence over cardiac function, during wake and sleep. Three hundred and one nonsmoking midlife women completed physical measures, a 24-hr electrocardiogram, actigraphy sleep measurement, and questionnaires about trauma (Brief Trauma Questionnaire), childhood abuse (Child Trauma Questionnaire [CTQ]), mood, demographics, and medical/psychiatric history. Relations between trauma and HF-HRV were assessed in linear mixed effects models adjusting for covariates (age, race, education, body mass index, blood pressure, psychiatric history, medication use, sleep, mood, childhood abuse history). Results indicated that most women had experienced trauma. Any trauma exposure as well as a greater number of traumatic experiences were associated with lower HF-HRV during wake and particularly during sleep. Relations were not accounted for by covariates. Among midlife women, trauma exposure was related to lower HF-HRV during wake and sleep. Trauma may have an important impact on vagal influence over the heart, particularly during sleep. Decreased vagal influence over cardiac function may be a key mechanism by which trauma is associated with CVD risk.