Abstract Background A relatively consistent body of research supports an inverse graded relationship between socioeconomic status (SES) and cardiovascular disease (CVD). More recently, researchers have proposed various life course SES hypotheses, which posit that the combination, accumulation, and/or interactions of different environments and experiences throughout life can affect adult risk of CVD. Different life course designs have been utilized to examine the impact of SES throughout the life course. This systematic review describes the four most common life course hypotheses, categorizes the studies that have examined the associations between life course SES and CVD according to their life course design, discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the different designs, and summarizes the studies' findings. Methods This research reviewed 49 observational studies in the biomedical literature that included socioeconomic measures at a time other than adulthood as independent variables, and assessed subclinical CHD, incident CVD morbidity and/or mortality, and/or the prevalence of traditional CVD risk factors as their outcomes. Studies were categorized into four groups based upon life course design and analytic approach. The study authors' conclusions and statistical tests were considered in summarizing study results. Results Study results suggest that low SES throughout the life course modestly impacts CVD risk factors and CVD risk. Specifically, studies reviewed provided moderate support for the role of low early-life SES and elevated levels of CVD risk factors and CVD morbidity and mortality, little support for a unique influence of social mobility on CVD, and consistent support for the detrimental impact of the accumulation of negative SES experiences/conditions across the life course on CVD risk. Conclusions While the basic life course SES study designs have various methodologic and conceptual limitations, they provide an important approach from which to examine the influence of social factors on CVD development. Some limitations may be addressed through the analysis of study cohorts followed from childhood, the evaluation of CVD risk factors in early and middle adulthood, and the use of multiple SES measures and multiple life course analysis approaches in each life course study.