We studied glucocorticoid-induced muscle wasting and subsequent recovery in adult (7-mo-old) and old (22-mo-old) rats, since the increased incidence of various disease states may result in glucocorticoids hypersecretion in aging. Adult and old rats received dexamethasone in their drinking water and were then allowed to recover. Muscle wasting occurred more rapidly in old rats and the recovery of muscle mass was impaired, suggesting that glucocorticoids may be involved in the emergence of muscle atrophy with advancing age. According to measurements in incubated epitrochlearis muscles, dexamethasone-induced muscle wasting mainly resulted from increased protein breakdown in the adult, but from depressed protein synthesis in the aged animal. Increased expression of cathepsin D, m-calpain, and ubiquitin was observed in the muscles from both dexamethasone-treated adult and old rats. By contrast, the disappearance of the stimulatory effect of glucocorticoids on protein break-down in aging occurred along with a loss of ability of steroids to enhance the expression of the 14-kD ubiquitin carrier protein E2, which is involved in protein substrates ubiquitinylation, and of subunits of the 20 S proteasome (the proteolytic core of the 26 S proteasome that degrades ubiquitin conjugates). Thus, if glucocorticoids play any role in the progressive muscle atrophy seen in aging, this is unlikely to result from an activation of the ubiquitin-proteasome proteolytic pathway.