1. Previous studies have indicated that younger hypertensive subjects may have abnormal endothelium-dependent relaxation, which could contribute to the elevated peripheral resistance seen in established hypertension. This study was designed to examine the functional behaviour of the endothelium of small arteries from elderly hypertensive and normotensive subjects.

2. Resistance arteries were obtained from gluteal biopsies taken under local anaesthesia in 28 subjects of mean age 70 (range 60–76) years, and studied in an isometric myograph. Eighteen subjects had untreated essential hypertension, and 10 were normotensive.

3. After measurement of the contractile response to noradrenaline, relaxation responses to a variety of endothelium-dependent (acetylcholine and bradykinin) and endothelium-independent (iloprost and sodium nitroprusside) mechanisms were assessed in vessels precontracted with noradrenaline. Endothelium-dependent responses were also studied after incubation with NG-nitro-l-arginine to inhibit nitric oxide synthase.

4. There were no significant differences in the contraction or relaxation responses between elderly subjects with or without high blood pressure. Inhibition of nitric oxide synthase prevented any relaxation with acetylcholine and significantly attenuated the relaxation with bradykinin. Near-complete relaxation was however achieved with the endothelium-independent vasodilator sodium nitroprusside.

5. Hypertension in elderly subjects is not associated with a reduction in endothelial vasodilating function in the subcutaneous vessels of the gluteal region compared with age-matched normotensive controls. The results of this study do not support the hypothesis of a defect of resistance artery endothelium-dependent relaxation in the pathophysiology of hypertension in the elderly.

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