The cardiovascular benefits of menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) remain controversial. The earlier clinical observations that cardiovascular disease (CVD) was less common in MHT users compared to non-users suggested cardiovascular benefits of MHT. Also, experimental studies have identified estrogen receptors ERα, ERβ and GPR30, which mediate genomic or non-genomic effects in vascular endothelium, smooth muscle, and extracellular matrix (ECM). However, data from randomized clinical trials (RCTs), most notably the Womens Health Initiative (WHI) study, have challenged the cardiovascular benefits and highlighted adverse cardiovascular events with MHT. The discrepancies have been attributed to the design of RCTs, the subjects advanced age and preexisting CVD, and the form of estrogen used. The discrepancies may also stem from age-related changes in vascular ER amount, distribution, integrity, and post-receptor signaling pathways as well as structural changes in the vasculature. Age-related changes in other sex hormones such as testosterone may also alter the hormonal environment and influence the cardiovascular effects of estrogen. Investigating the chemical properties, structure-activity relationship and pharmacology of natural and synthetic estrogens should improve the effectiveness of conventional MHT. Further characterization of phytoestrogens, selective estrogen-receptor modulators (SERMs), and specific ER agonists may provide substitutes to conventional MHT. Conditions with excess or low estrogen levels such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and Turner syndrome may provide insight into the development and regulation of ER and the mechanisms of aberrant estrogen-ER interactions. The lessons learned from previous RCTs have led to more directed studies such as the Kronos Early Estrogen Prevention Study (KEEPS). Careful design of experimental models and RCTs, coupled with the development of specific ER modulators, hold the promise of improving the actions of estrogen in the aging blood vessels and thereby enhancing the efficacy and safety of MHT in postmenopausal CVD.
Keywords: Sex hormones, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, endothelium, vascular smooth muscle, extracellular matrix, cardiovascular disease, hypertension