Human ageing and the sympathoadrenal system

J Physiol. 2000 Nov 1;528(Pt 3):407-17. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7793.2000.00407.x.


Over the past three decades the changes in sympathoadrenal function that occur with age in healthy adult humans have been systematically studied using a combination of neurochemical, neurophysiological and haemodynamic experimental approaches. The available experimental evidence indicates that tonic whole-body sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity increases with age. The elevations in SNS activity appear to be region specific, targeting skeletal muscle and the gut, but not obviously the kidney. The SNS tone of the heart is increased, although this appears to be due in part to reduced neuronal reuptake of noradrenaline (norepinephrine). In contrast to SNS activity, tonic adrenaline (epinephrine) secretion from the adrenal medulla is markedly reduced with age. This is not reflected in plasma adrenaline concentrations because of reduced plasma clearance. Despite widely held beliefs to the contrary, sympathoadrenal responsiveness to acute stress is not exaggerated with age in healthy adults. Indeed, adrenaline release in response to acute stress is substantially attenuated in older men. The mechanisms underlying the age-associated increases in SNS activity have not been established, but our preliminary data are consistent with increased subcortical central nervous system (CNS) sympathetic drive. These changes in sympathoadrenal function with advancing age may have a number of important physiological and pathophysiological consequences for human health and disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adrenal Glands / physiology*
  • Adrenal Glands / physiopathology
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Epinephrine / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology


  • Epinephrine