Objectives: This study assessed whether aging is associated with progressive endothelial dysfunction, whether the pattern of any age-related decline in vascular health is different in men and women and whether any gender difference is consistent with known changes in hormonal status.
Background: Coronary and cerebrovascular disease are much less common in young and middle-aged women compared with men, although the gender difference in death from atherosclerosis is less marked after the menopause. Endothelial dysfunction is an early event in atherogenesis and is important in dynamic plaque stenosis in later life. The effect of aging on endothelial function in men and women, however, is not well known.
Methods: We used high resolution ultrasound to study endothelium-dependent and endothelium-independent vascular responses. Brachial artery physiology was investigated in 238 subjects (103 men, 135 women; mean [+/- SD] age 38 +/- 17 years, range 15 to 72) with no known risk factors for atherosclerosis. The responses to reactive hyperemia (flow-mediated dilation, which is endothelium dependent) and to glyceryl trinitrate (an endothelium-independent dilator) were assessed for all the subjects and then for men and women separately.
Results: On multivariate analysis for the whole group, reduced flow-mediated dilation was related to older age (r = -0.34, p < 0.0001). In men, flow-mediated dilation was preserved in subjects aged < or = 40 years but declined thereafter at 0.21%/year. In women, flow-mediated dilation was stable until the early 50s, after which it declined at 0.49%/year (p = 0.002 compared with men). In contrast, there was no significant change in the glyceryl trinitrate response with aging in either gender.
Conclusions: Aging is associated with progressive endothelial dysfunction in normal humans, and this appears to occur earlier in men than in women. In women, however, a steep decline commences at around the time of the menopause. This is consistent with a protective effect of estrogens on the arterial wall.