As the absolute numbers and proportion of older adults increases across most of the developed world, a greater understanding of the aetiopathogenic mechanisms of the increased vascular risk and their therapeutic implications becomes essential to all clinicians assessing and managing the geriatric patient. The role of endothelial function and the microcirculation is increasingly recognized in the maintenance of adequate perfusion, and their dysfunction is thought to be an early and potentially reversible mechanism by which age acts to increase cardiovascular risk.
Here we review evidence that altered microvascular function appears before other recognized predictors of vascular disease, and progresses from childhood to late adult life, preceding fulminant atherosclerotic or arteriosclerotic disease. Low birth-weight babies have reduced endothelial function in skin microvessels at 3 months, and by age ten brachial artery endothelial function is reduced in comparison with normal birth-weight babies. In overweight/obese adolescent children with clustering of traditional cardiovascular disease risk factors, endothelial function is lower compared with normal weight children and this appears to persist into early adulthood. Adult ageing is associated with impaired microvessel endothelial function and an increase in capillary blood pressure, independent of brachial artery blood pressure. Biological and lifestyle factors that influence microvessel function include body fat and visceral adiposity, sex hormone status, diet and physical activity.
Exploration of the therapeutic implications for management of endothelial dysfunction remains in embryonic state. The use of ACE-inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers and direct renin inhibitors in patients with evidence of microvascular damage such as retinopathy and microalbuminuria has been established; however, in the general older population the benefit has yet to be established. Therefore current recommendations are to screen for microvascular damage and if present target treatments after control of other vascular risk factors such as hypertension.