There are sex differences in the occurrence of microsatellite instability (MSI) in colon tumors. Taken together with the epidemiological evidence that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and, less consistently, parity, are inversely associated with colon cancer, it has been hypothesized that estrogens are associated with MSI. The purpose of this study was to evaluate sex-specific differences in the prevalence of MSI in colon tumors and to determine whether reproductive history and hormonal exposures are associated with MSI. Using data from a population-based case-control study of 1836 cases with MSI data and 2410 population-based controls, we evaluated sex, reproductive factors, and hormone exposure in relation to the presence or absence of MSI in tumors. MSI was evaluated by a panel of 10 tetranucleotide repeats, the noncoding mononucleotide repeat BAT-26, and the coding mononucleotide repeat in transforming growth factor beta receptor type II (TGFbetaRII). Exposure data on reproduction, hormone use, obesity, and physical activity were obtained from an interviewer-administered questionnaire. Women were less likely then men to have MSI+ tumors at a young age and more likely to have unstable tumors at an older age; we observed a significant interaction (P < 0.01) between age, sex, and MSI. Evaluation of reproductive factors showed that women who had ever been pregnant had half the risk of MSI+ tumors compared with women who had never been pregnant. In complementary fashion, total ovulatory months were associated with an increased risk of MSI+ tumors [odds ratio (OR), 2.1; 95% confidence interval (CI), 1.1-4.0 comparing MSI+ versus MSI- tumors]. Age at first and last pregnancy did not influence the association. The observed associations were strongest among women <60 years of age at the time of diagnosis. Having used oral contraceptives was associated with a lower risk of MSI+ tumors (OR, 0.7; 95% CI, 0.4-1.2); recent users of HRT were at a reduced risk of MSI+ tumors (OR, 0.8; 95% CI, 0.5-1.4); and women who were former HRT users were at an increased risk of MSI+ tumors (OR, 1.8; 95% CI, 1.1-3.0). Obesity and lack of physical activity were associated with an elevated risk of both MSI+ (OR, 1.7; 95% CI, 0.7-3.3) and MSI- (OR, 2.2; 95% CI, 1.7-3.) tumors in men, but only with MSI- (OR, 1.5; 95% CI, 1.1-2.2) tumors in women. The excess of MSI+ tumors in women is explained by the excess of MSI+ tumors at older ages. Our data suggest that estrogen exposure in women protects against MSI, whereas the lack of estrogen in older women increases risk of instability. HRT in these older women may, again, reduce the risk of unstable tumors. A model for the way in which estrogens (endogenous, exogenous, and obesity-associated) modify the risk of MSI+ tumors is proposed.