The effect of aging on nasal mucociliary clearance, beat frequency, and ultrastructure of respiratory cilia

Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2001 Mar;163(4):983-8. doi: 10.1164/ajrccm.163.4.9909121.


The increased susceptibility of the elderly to lower respiratory tract infection cannot be fully explained. Although mucociliary clearance, which is affected by ciliary beating and ultrastructure, plays a crucial role in the defense of the airways against inhaled microbes, little is known of the effects of aging on these parameters. We studied the nasal mucociliary clearance (NMCC) time, ciliary beat frequency, and ultrastructure of respiratory cilia in a cohort of healthy volunteers (age range 11 to 90 yr). Ciliary beat frequency of ciliated nasal epithelial cells was obtained via an established photometric method, and NMCC time was measured with the saccharine test. There was a correlation of ciliary beat frequency (r = -0.48, p = 0.0001) and NMCC time r = 0.64, p < 0.001) with increasing age. Transmission electron microscopy revealed an increase in the percent of subjects exhibiting microtubular disarrangement and single central microtubules with aging (p = 0.002 and p = 0.005, respectively). Subjects older than 40 yr of age had significantly slower ciliary beat frequency, higher percent of ciliary cross-sections displaying single tubules, and longer NMCC time than their younger counterparts (p < 0.05). These findings may help explain the frequent occurrence of respiratory infection in the elderly.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / pathology*
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Chi-Square Distribution
  • Child
  • Cilia / physiology
  • Cilia / ultrastructure
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mucociliary Clearance*
  • Nasal Mucosa / physiology*
  • Nasal Mucosa / ultrastructure*
  • Probability
  • Respiratory Tract Diseases / etiology
  • Respiratory Tract Diseases / physiopathology