1. To test the hypothesis that in apparently healthy elderly subjects with orthostatic hypotension there is afferent baroreflex dysfunction, cardiovascular and neurohumoral responses were measured after separate stimuli which activated baroreceptor (head-up tilt) and non-baroreceptor (cold stress, isometric exercise) afferent pathways.
2. In 15 healthy elderly control subjects blood pressure did not change with 60° head-up tilting and there was a moderate increase in heart rate, whereas in 13 subjects with age-related orthostatic hypotension head-up tilting was associated with a marked fall in blood pressure but a similar heart rate response to that in the elderly control group. In contrast, both groups of subjects had similar blood pressure and heart rate responses to cold stress and sustained isometric exercise.
3. Nine subjects with autonomic neuropathy also showed a marked hypotensive response to head-up tilt, but produced no pressor response to cold stress or isometric exercise.
4. The plasma concentrations of noradrenaline, adrenaline and neuropeptide-Y-like immunoreactivity rose and that of atrial natriuretic peptide fell after head-up tilt in the study population as a whole. There were no significant differences between groups despite the much greater blood pressure drops in the subjects with autonomic neuropathy and in those with age-associated orthostatic hypotension.
5. The aorto-iliac pulse wave velocity index was significantly higher in subjects with age-associated orthostatic hypotension compared with that in control subjects.
6. The pattern of responses to the separate stresses observed in the group with age-associated orthostatic hypotension is characteristic and different from that in the elderly control subjects and the subjects with autonomic neuropathy. It suggests that age-associated orthostatic hypotension is related predominantly to dysfunction in the afferent limb of the baroreflex arc, possibly partially caused by a splinting of arterial baroreceptors by non-compliant arterial walls.