The effects of aging on the total number and size of fibers, and the proportion and distribution of type 1 (slow twitch) and type 2 (fast twitch) fibers were studied in cross sections (15 mu thick) of autopsied whole m. vastus lateralis from two age groups. Each group consisted of six, previously physically healthy males (mean age 72 +/- 1 years and 30 +/- 6 years, respectively). The size of the muscles of the older individuals was 18% smaller (P less than 0.01) and the total number of fibers was 25% lower (P less than 0.01) than those of the young individuals (mean number 364,000 +/- 50,000 vs 478,000 +/- 56,000). There was, however, no significant difference in the mean fiber size (indirectly determined) or the proportion of the two fiber types, though a preferential reduction in type 2 fiber number in the aged individuals was seen. The relative occurrence of the fiber types at various depths in the aged muscles was found to be more even than in muscles from the young individuals. The results suggest that the aging atrophy in m. vastus lateralis, at least up to the age of 70, is primarily the result of a loss of fibers.