Gender and Heart Disease: What You Need to know

03/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

At Women's Voices for Change, we're honored to count Holly Andersen, M.D. on our Medical Advisory Board. An Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical Center, Dr. Andersen is also the Chief Medical Resident for the Department of Medicine and Director of Education and Outreach for the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute at The New York Presbyterian Hospital, She currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, the President's Council for the International Women's Health Coalition, and the National Advisory Board for the Women's Sports Foundation, and has also been an on-air medical consultant to ABC World News Tonight, MTV, the CBS Evening News, NBC Evening News, The Early Show, The Fox Television Network, The Fox News Channel, and The British Broadcasting Company. So when the newest discoveries about gender and heart disease were announced this month, we knew we could turn to Dr. Andersen to explain what it means for boomers, especially women. -- Patricia Yarberry Allen

Last week, two researchers from Australia announced an exciting new discovery about gender and heart disease. We have long recognized that men generally become prone to coronary artery disease earlier than women -- on average a decade earlier -- perhaps supporting the notion that male sex hormones increase one's risk of heart disease.

Although the role of androgens in cardiovascular disease remains controversial, this month scientists from Sydney's Heart Research Institute showed the opposite: that androgens promote angiogenesis - the process whereby the body grows new blood vessels and repairs damaged ones.

Despite this new research, which appears to show that androgens or male sex hormones can protect the heart, it is not time for women (or men for that matter) to start taking testosterone to keep their hearts healthy.

Unlocking the secret to angiogenesis is paramount to the Holy Grail of cardiovascular medicine. Previously, androgens have been shown to promote growth and repair mechanisms in bone and muscle. It is not a far leap that favorable effects might also be seen in the heart.

Investigators, lead by Daniel Sieveking, exposed male endothelial cells (the cells that line our arteries) to a potent androgen called DHT and demonstrated a dose-dependent increase in key activities essential to blood vessel growth and repair. They also found that muscle and arteries in the leg of a mouse damaged by ischemia (lack of oxygen) - the same type of injury which occurs in strokes and heart attacks -- was less severe, and recovery much faster, in those mice exposed to androgens.

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