Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is more common in men and postmenopausal women (Post-MW) than premenopausal women (Pre-MW). Despite recent advances in preventive measures, the incidence of CVD in women has shown a rise that matched the increase in the Post-MW population. The increased incidence of CVD in Post-MW has been related to the decline in estrogen levels, and hence suggested vascular benefits of endogenous estrogen. Experimental studies have identified estrogen receptor ERα, ERβ and a novel estrogen binding membrane protein GPR30 (GPER) in blood vessels of humans and experimental animals. The interaction of estrogen with vascular ERs mediates both genomic and non-genomic effects. Estrogen promotes endothelium-dependent relaxation by increasing nitric oxide, prostacyclin, and hyperpolarizing factor. Estrogen also inhibits the mechanisms of vascular smooth muscle (VSM) contraction including [Ca2+]i, protein kinase C and Rho-kinase. Additional effects of estrogen on the vascular cytoskeleton, extracellular matrix, lipid profile and the vascular inflammatory response have been reported. In addition to the experimental evidence in animal models and vascular cells, initial observational studies in women using menopausal hormonal therapy (MHT) have suggested that estrogen may protect against CVD. However, randomized clinical trials (RCTs) such as the Heart and Estrogen/ progestin Replacement Study (HERS) and the Womens Health Initiative (WHI), which examined the effects of conjugated equine estrogens (CEE) in older women with established CVD (HERS) or without overt CVD (WHI), failed to demonstrate protective vascular effects of estrogen treatment. Despite the initial set-back from the results of MHT RCTs, growing evidence now supports the ‘timing hypothesis’, which suggests that MHT could increase the risk of CVD if started late after menopause, but may produce beneficial cardiovascular effects in younger women during the perimenopausal period. The choice of an appropriate MHT dose, route of administration, and estrogen/progestin combination could maximize the vascular benefits of MHT and minimize other adverse effects, especially if given within a reasonably short time after menopause to women that seek MHT for the relief of menopausal symptoms.
Keywords: Sex Hormones, Hypertension, Vascular Smooth Muscle, Endothelium, Estrogen Receptor, Phytoestrogens, Testosterone, Progesterone, coronary heart disease, Heart and Estrogen/progestin Replacement Study
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