Current research on lipid alterations and the risk of ischemic cardiopathy is reviewed, and the relationship of such cardiopathy to exogenous hormonal treatment is examined. Most large epidemiological and intervention studies have focused on men. Men and women share some risk factors, including high serum cholesterol levels, adverse lipoprotein profile, smoking, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, advanced age, and according to some studies sedentary life style. Additional factors that may affect women more than men are elevated serum triglyceride levels, natural or surgical menopause, use of oral contraceptives (OCs), and possibly hormonal substitution therapy. Studies have revealed a characteristic female profile of lipids and lipoproteins that follows a predictable course with age and menopause. Average total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol are higher in men than in premenopausal women, but women's levels rise after menopause until they eventually exceed those of men. According to epidemiological study and clinical trials over the past 2 decades, the principal determinants of serum lipid levels and hyperlipidemia are similar for both sexes and include diet, smoking, physical exercise and other habits, and genetic factors. Lipid levels in women are also affected by endogenous estrogens, high-dose OCs, estrogen replacement therapy, and menopause. Several studies have shown that high serum concentrations of total and LDL cholesterol and relatively low levels of HDL cholesterol are correlated with development of atherosclerotic lesions and increased cardiovascular risk in men, and that lowering cholesterol reduces the risk. Thus far there are no conclusive studies demonstrating the benefits of reduced cholesterol levels for women, but studies that included women along with men suggested that they share the benefits. Low levels of HDL cholesterol and elevated serum triglyceride levels appear to be important predictors of ischemic cardiopathy in women. The coronary risk in former OC users does not appear to be higher than that of women who never used OCs. It is likely that the lower-dosed formulations now in use will mitigate the risk. The adverse effect of OCs on lipid levels appears to be related to the androgenicity of the progestin. Most of the progestins used in combined pills are related to the 19-nortestosterone group which tends to decrease HDL level and increase LDL and triglyceride levels. Many studies have demonstrated that postmenopausal use of estrogens alone result in a decrease in LDL and an increase in HDL levels. Most but not all studies have shown that hormonal substitution reduces risks of coronary disease. But the longterm effects of estrogen/progestin use, now recommended to avoid increased risk of endometrial cancer, are not known.
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