Low birth weight is associated with hypertension and increased cardiovascular mortality, but the mechanism of this association is not known. Hypertension is accompanied by abnormalities of the microvasculature including rarefaction.Objective
To test the hypothesis that low birth weight is associated with an alteration in microvascular architecture.Design A
stratified random sample of 100 men aged 64–74 years was selected from a cohort of men whose birth weights were known. They were of relatively high or low birth weight (‘high’ ≥ 3700 g, ‘low’ ≤ 3200 g) and high or low systolic blood pressure (high ≥ 160 mmHg, low ≤ 140 mmHg).Methods
Retinal arteriolar geometry was defined in terms of arteriolar bifurcation angles and junction exponents (a measure of the relative diameters of parent and daughter vessels), measured from photographic diapositives using operator-directed image analysis.Results
Members of low-birth-weight groups had significantly narrower bifurcation angles than did members of high-birth-weight groups (74 ± 1° versus 78 ± 1°, P = 0.017 by analysis of variance). There was no significant difference between angles in members of groups with high and low blood pressures. Neither birth weight nor blood pressure grouping affected junction exponents.Conclusions
Narrower bifurcation angles are associated with increased circulatory energy costs and may be related to a lower than normal microvascular density. Our finding of differences in retinal microvascular architecture might reflect a persistent alteration in vascular architecture as a result of an impairment of foetal development and could provide a mechanistic link between low birth weight and subsequently increased cardiovascular risk.