The prevalence of hypertension and cardiovascular disease increases dramatically after menopause in women, implicating estrogen as having a protective role in the cardiovascular system. However, recent large clinical trials have failed to show cardiovascular benefit, and have even demonstrated possible harmful effects, of opposed and unopposed estrogen in postmenopausal women. While these findings have led to a revision of guidelines such that they discourage the use of estrogen for primary or secondary prevention of heart disease in postmenopausal women, many investigators have attributed the negative results in clinical trials to several flaws in study design, including the older age of study participants and the initiation of estrogen late after menopause. Because almost all clinical trials use oral estrogen as the primary form of hormone supplementation, another question that has arisen is the importance of the route of estrogen administration with regards to the cardiovascular outcomes. During oral estrogen administration, the concentration of estradiol in the liver sinusoids is four to five times higher than that in the systemic circulation. This supraphysiologic concentration of estrogen in the liver can modulate the expression of many hepatic-derived proteins, which are not observed in premenopausal women. In contrast, transdermal estrogen delivers the hormone directly into the systemic circulation and, thus, avoids the first-pass hepatic effect. Although oral estrogen exerts a more favorable influence than transdermal estrogen on traditional cardiovascular risk factors such as high- and low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol levels, recent studies have indicated that oral estrogen adversely influences many emerging risk factors in ways that are not seen with transdermal estrogen. Oral estrogen significantly increases levels of acute-phase proteins such as C-reactive protein and serum amyloid A; procoagulant factors such as prothrombin fragments 1+2; and several key enzymes involved in plaque disruption, while transdermal estrogen does not have these adverse effects. Whether the advantages of transdermal estrogen with regards to these risk factors will translate into improved clinical outcomes remains to be determined. Two ongoing clinical trials, KEEPS (Kronos Early Estrogen Prevention Study) and ELITE (Early versus Late Intervention Trial with Estradiol) are likely to provide invaluable information regarding the role of oral versus transdermal estrogen in younger postmenopausal women.
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