Several events are associated with cellular aging: alterations in the extracellular matrix, loss of the cell's proliferative capacity, and decreased responsiveness to growth factors. In skin, a major component of the extracellular matrix is collagen; an important regulator of collagen synthesis is ascorbic acid, which may also have growth factor-like properties. To investigate the relationship of the extracellular matrix and proliferative capacity to aging, we examined the effects of ascorbic acid on cell proliferation and collagen expression in dermal fibroblasts from donors of two age classes, newborn (3-8 d old) and elderly (78-93 years old). In the absence of ascorbic acid (control) proliferative capacities were inversely related to age; newborn cell lines proliferated faster and reached greater densities than elderly cell lines. However, in the presence of ascorbic acid both newborn and elderly cells proliferated at a faster rate and reached higher densities than controls. To determine whether there are age-related differences in extracellular matrix production and ascorbic acid responsiveness we examined and found that collagen biosynthesis (collagenase-digestible protein) was inversely related to age, but the stimulation by ascorbic acid appeared age independent. The increase in collagen synthesis was reflected by coordinate increases in steady-state pro alpha 1(I) and pro alpha 1(III) collagen mRNAs, suggesting a pretranslational mechanism. Ascorbic acid appears capable of overcoming the reduced proliferative capacity of elderly dermal fibroblasts, as well as increasing collagen synthesis in elderly cells by similar degrees as in newborn cells even though basal levels of collagen synthesis are age dependent.