The narrowing of tiny blood vessels in the eyes of young children may predict whether those children develop high blood pressure, a new study shows.

Researchers measured both blood pressure and the diameter of retinal arteries in 262 children ages 6 to 8 from Basel, Switzerland. Measurements were taken in 2014 and then again in 2018.

Children with narrower eye vessels at the beginning of the study developed higher systolic blood pressure during the four years. Systolic is the top number in a blood pressure measurement. Also, children with higher blood pressure at the start of the study developed narrower eye vessels.

Previous studies have shown the association of eye vessel width and blood pressure in adults, but researchers said this is the first to show the connection in children. The study was published Monday in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension.

"Hypertension continues as the main risk factor for the development of cardiovascular diseases and mortality," Dr. Henner Hanssen, the study's senior author, said in a news release. He is a professor in the department of sport, exercise and health at the University of Basel in Switzerland.

Checking the health of eye vessels and monitoring blood pressure early in childhood can improve cardiovascular risk classification, he said. "The earlier we can provide treatment and implement lifestyle changes to reduce hypertension, the greater the benefit for these children."

Blood pressure measurements were performed in a sitting position after a minimum of five minutes of rest and were categorized based on the American Academy of Pediatrics' blood pressure guidelines.

The study could not confirm blood pressure measurements over a single 24-hour period, so researchers could not account for "white coat" hypertension, a condition in which people have high blood pressure readings when measured in a medical setting. Other variables that could impact blood pressure and microvascular health – such as developmental stage, puberty status, genetic factors and birth weight – also weren't accounted for.

Researchers said future studies are needed to determine normal values for retinal vessel diameters during childhood because they currently don't exist.

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