Background: Carotid endarterectomy to prevent a stroke is less beneficial for women compared with men. This benefit is lower in asymptomatic women compared with asymptomatic men or symptomatic patients. A possible explanation for this gender-associated difference in outcome could be found in the atherosclerotic carotid plaque phenotype. We hypothesize that women, especially asymptomatic women, have more stable plaques than men, resulting in a decreased benefit of surgical plaque removal.
Methods: Carotid endarterectomy specimens of 450 consecutive patients (135 women, 315 men) were studied. The culprit lesions were semi-quantitatively analyzed for the presence of macrophages, smooth muscle cells, collagen, calcifications, and luminal thrombus. Plaques were categorized in three phenotypes according to overall presentation and the amount of fat. Protein was isolated from the plaques for determination of interleukin-6 (IL-6) and IL-8 concentrations and matrix metalloproteinase-8 (MMP-8) and MMP-9 activities.
Results: Atheromatous plaques (>40% fat) were less frequently observed in women than in men (22% vs 40%; P < .001). In addition, plaques obtained from women more frequently revealed low macrophage staining (11% vs 18%; P = .05) and strong smooth muscle cell staining (38% vs 24%; P = .001). Compared with men, women had a lower plaque concentration of IL-8 (P = .001) and lower MMP-8 activity (P = .01). The observed differences were most pronounced in asymptomatic women, who showed the most stable plaques, with an atheromatous plaque in only 9% of cases compared with 39% in asymptomatic men (P = .02). In addition, a large proportion of plaques obtained from asymptomatic women showed high smooth muscle cell content (53% vs 30%; P = .03) and high collagen content (55% vs 24%; P = .003). All relations between gender and plaque characteristics, except for MMP-8, remained intact in a multivariate analysis, including clinical presentation and other cardiovascular risk factors.
Conclusion: Carotid artery plaques obtained from women have a more stable, less inflammatory phenotype compared with men, independent of clinical presentation and cardiovascular risk profile. Asymptomatic women demonstrate the highest prevalence of stable plaques. These findings could explain why women benefit less from carotid endarterectomy compared with men.