There is now strong epidemiological evidence that estrogen replacement therapy has a protective effect in postmenopausal women. The cardiovascular protective action of estrogen is reported to be mediated indirectly by an effect on lipoprotein metabolism and by a direct effect on the vessel wall itself. Estrogen is active both in vascular smooth muscle and endothelium. Functionally competent estrogen receptors have been identified in vascular smooth muscle cells, and specific binding sites have been demonstrated in endothelium. Estrogen administration promotes vasodilation both in human and experimental animals, in part by stimulating] prostacyclin and nitric oxide synthesis. Both the prostaglandin synthase and the constitutive nitric oxide synthase were recently reported to be induced by estrogen treatment. In vitro, estrogen exerts a direct inhibitory effect on the smooth muscle by inhibiting calcium influx. In addition, estrogen inhibits vascular smooth muscle cell proliferation. In vivo, estradiol-17 beta prevents neointimal thickening after balloon injury and in rabbit cardiac transplant allografts. These data are consistent with in vitro studies wherein estrogen inhibits [3H]thymidine uptake by arterial segments from porcine coronary artery as well as proliferation of rabbit aortic vascular smooth muscle cells induced by hyperlipedemic serum. Recent studies have also reported an effect of estrogen on directed vascular smooth muscle cell migration. Furthermore, like other steroids, the effect of estrogen on the vessel wall has a rapid nongenomic component involving membrane phenomena, such as alteration of membrane ionic permeability and activation of membrane-bound enzymes, as well as the classical genomic effect involving estrogen receptor activation and gene expression. The nature of these estrogen response genes in the vessel wall and their relation to vasodilation and antiproliferation remain to be determined.