Harvard Heart Letter

Special section: Cardiovascular connections: The ovarian connection

Special section: Cardiovascular connections

The ovarian connection

As tiny hormone factories, the ovaries have a substantial effect on a woman's cardiovascular health. Until menopause, the ovaries churn out a steady stream of estrogen and other hormones. These hormones help keep arteries supple, one reason why women develop heart disease an average of 10 years later than men.

Added estrogen, progesterone, and other so-called female hormones are a different story. Taking birth control pills increases the chances of having a deep-vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism. Use of estrogen and progesterone after menopause increases the chances of having a heart attack, stroke, or blood clot. Low doses of estrogen, perhaps delivered through the skin, could help prevent heart disease, but that is still being investigated.

illustration of ovary with cysts

Polycystic ovary syndrome is a hormonal hurricane characterized by high levels of androgens (male hormones), irregular or nonexistent menstrual periods, excess facial and body hair, and enlarged ovaries filled with small cysts, like those shown in the illustration above. Women with polycystic ovary syndrome tend to have stiffer arteries, as well as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and resistance to insulin, all risk factors for heart disease. For that reason, women with this condition are urged to talk with their doctors about ways to prevent heart disease.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »