To delineate the effects of aging on basal and stimulated TSH secretion, we studied the 24-h profile of plasma TSH levels and the TSH response to TRH stimulation (200 micrograms TRH, iv) in eight healthy elderly men, aged 67-84 yr, and eight normal young men, aged 20-27 yr. Subjects with thyroid antibodies against microsomal or thyroglobulin antigens were excluded. During the 24-h study, blood was sampled at 15-min intervals. TSH levels were measured by an ultrasensitive immunoradiometric assay. Sleep was polygraphically monitored, and circadian and pulsatile TSH variations were quantified using specifically designed computer algorithms. In older men, the 24-h mean TSH concentration was approximately 50% lower than that in young men (0.78 +/- 0.37 vs. 1.43 +/- 0.41 microU/mL; P less than 0.01), but basal T3 levels were only slightly lower (93 +/- 12 vs. 115 +/- 16 ng/dL; P less than 0.02), while basal T4 levels were normal. The normal diurnal variation of TSH levels, with a nocturnal acrophase and an afternoon nadir, as well as the pulsatile nature of TSH release were preserved in elderly men. When expressed in microunits per mL, the amplitude of these temporal variations was reduced in elderly men compared to that in younger subjects. However, when expressed in relation to the mean TSH levels, the amplitudes of diurnal and pulsatile variations were similar in both groups of subjects. TRH-induced TSH secretion was lower in old than in young men (area under the curve, 15.9 +/- 6.3 microU/mL.10 min in elderly men vs. 42.0 +/- 16.6 microU/mL.10 min in young men; P less than 0.002). However, the TRH-induced elevations of T3 and T4 were of similar magnitude in both groups. These results indicate that in healthy elderly men, the overall 24-h TSH secretion is decreased, and the pituitary is less responsive to stimulation by TRH. However, the chronobiological modulation is preserved. These alterations could reflect an adaptative mechanism to the reduced need for thyroid hormones in old age. The thyroid keeps an intact capacity to respond to acute increases in TSH concentrations.