CVD (cardiovascular disease) is the leading cause of death for women. Considerable progress has been made in both our understanding of the complexities governing menopausal hormone therapy and our understanding of the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying hormone and hormone receptor function. Understanding the interplay of atherosclerosis and sex steroid hormones and their cognate receptors at the level of the vessel wall has important ramifications for clinical practice. In the present review, we discuss the epidemiology of CVD in men and women, the clinical impact of sex hormones on CVD, and summarize our current understanding of the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis with a focus on gender differences in CVD, its clinical presentation and course, and pathobiology. The critical animal and human data that pertain to the role of oestrogens, androgens and progestins on the vessel wall is also reviewed, with particular attention to the actions of sex hormones on each of the three key cell types involved in atherogenesis: the endothelium, smooth muscle cells and macrophages. Where relevant, the systemic (metabolic) effects of sex hormones that influence atherogenesis, such as those involving vascular reactivity, inflammation and lipoprotein metabolism, are discussed. In addition, four key current concepts in the field are explored: (i) total hormone exposure time and coronary heart disease risk; (ii) the importance of tissue specificity of sex steroid hormones, critical timing and the stage of atherosclerosis in hormone action; (iii) biomarkers for atherosclerosis with regard to hormone therapy; and (iv) the complex role of sex steroids in inflammation. Future studies in this field will contribute to guiding clinical treatment recommendations for women and help define research priorities.

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