Increased vascular resistance in essential hypertension occurs mainly in microvessels with luminal diameters < 100 microm. It is not known whether abnormalities in these vessels are a cause or consequence of high blood pressure (BP). We studied 105 men (aged 23-33 yr) in whom predisposition to high blood pressure has been characterized by both their own BP and those of their parents. Factors that are secondary to high BP correlate with offspring BP irrespective of parental BP, but factors that are components of the familial predisposition to high BP are more closely associated with higher BP in offspring whose parents also have high BP. Offspring with high BP whose parents also have high BP had impaired dermal vasodilatation in the forearm following ischemia and heating (289+/-27 [n = 25] versus 529+/-40 [n = 26], 476+/-38 [n = 30], and 539+/-41 flux units [n = 24] in other groups; P < 0.0001) and fewer capillaries on the dorsum of the finger (23+/-0.8 capillaries/0.25 mm2 versus 26+/-0.8 in all other groups; P < 0.003). Except for BP, other hemodynamic indices (including cardiac output and forearm vascular resistance) were not different. The dermal vessels of men who express a familial predisposition to high BP exhibit increased minimum resistance and capillary rarefaction. Defective angiogenesis may be an etiological component in the inheritance of high BP.