The effects of excess cortisol secretion on blood pressure and fat deposition are well documented, but the importance of this glucocorticoid in controlling these processes in normal individuals is less clear. We studied the relationship between cortisol excretion rate (tetrahydrocortisol [THF]+allo-THF+tetrahydrocortisone [THE]) and a range of important cardiovascular risk factors in 439 normal subjects (238 male) sampled from the North of Glasgow (Scotland) population. There were marked gender differences: female subjects were lighter and had lower blood pressures and cortisol levels, whereas HDL cholesterol was higher. The pattern of cortisol metabolism was also different; the index of 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase activity (THF+allo-THF/THE) was lower and that of 5alpha-reductase (allo-THF/THF) was higher. There was a strong correlation of blood pressure (positive), cholesterol (positive), and HDL cholesterol (negative in women, positive in men) with age. Cortisol excretion rate did not correlate with blood pressure but correlated strongly with parameters of body habitus (body mass index and waist and hip measurements [positive]) and HDL cholesterol (negative). With multiple regression analysis, there remained a significant association of cortisol excretion rate with HDL cholesterol in men and women and with body mass index in men. These results suggest that glucocorticoids regulate key components of cardiovascular risk.