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Five hundred and fifty-four patients with episodic cluster headache (ECH) and chronic cluster headache (CCH) were examined between 1963 and 1997. Mean age at onset was significantly higher in women with CCH compared with women with ECH and in men with ECH or CCH. In women with CCH age at onset was evenly distributed from 10 to 69 years, whereas in men with CCH and in both sexes with ECH, there was a peak when they were in their 20s. In women with ECH a second peak of onset occurred in their 50s. Although not statistically significant, primary CCH started later in women (mean 50.8 years) than secondary CCH (mean 35.5 years). There was a significant variation in the male : female ratio with respect to age at onset, being largest between 30 and 49 years of age (ECH 7.2 : 1; CCH 11.0 : 1) and lowest after 50 (ECH 2.3 : 1; CCH 0.6 : 1). During the observation period of more than 30 years there was a trend towards a decreasing male preponderance; the male : female ratio was significantly higher among patients with onset before rather than after 1970. The proportion of episodic vs. chronic CH did not change during the study period. The nature of the sex- and age-related pattern of cluster headache onset remains to be elucidated but mechanisms associated with sex hormone regulation, perhaps of hypothalamic origin, may be involved, as well as environmental factors related to lifestyle.