White matter hyperintensities accumulate with age and occur in patients with stroke, but their pathogenesis is poorly understood. We measured multiple magnetic resonance imaging biomarkers of tissue integrity in normal-appearing white matter and white matter hyperintensities in patients with mild stroke, to improve understanding of white matter hyperintensities origins. We classified white matter into white matter hyperintensities and normal-appearing white matter and measured fractional anisotropy, mean diffusivity, water content (T1-relaxation time) and blood–brain barrier leakage (signal enhancement slope from dynamic contrast-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging). We studied the effects of age, white matter hyperintensities burden (Fazekas score) and vascular risk factors on each biomarker, in normal-appearing white matter and white matter hyperintensities, and performed receiver-operator characteristic curve analysis. Amongst 204 patients (34.3–90.9 years), all biomarkers differed between normal-appearing white matter and white matter hyperintensities (P < 0.001). In normal-appearing white matter and white matter hyperintensities, mean diffusivity and T1 increased with age (P < 0.001), all biomarkers varied with white matter hyperintensities burden (P < 0.001; P = 0.02 signal enhancement slope), but only signal enhancement slope increased with hypertension (P = 0.028). Fractional anisotropy showed complex age-white matter hyperintensities-tissue interactions; enhancement slope showed white matter hyperintensities-tissue interactions. Mean diffusivity distinguished white matter hyperintensities from normal-appearing white matter best at all ages. Blood–brain barrier leakage increases with hypertension and white matter hyperintensities burden at all ages in normal-appearing white matter and white matter hyperintensities, whereas water mobility and content increase as tissue damage accrues, suggesting that blood–brain barrier leakage mediates small vessel disease-related brain damage.