Because heat shock proteins have been shown to play a critical role in protecting cells from hyperthermia and other types of physiological stresses, it was of interest to determine what effect age and caloric restriction have on the ability of cells to regulate the expression of heat shock protein 70 (hsp70), the most prominent and most evolutionarily conserved of the heat shock proteins. Caloric restriction is the only experimental manipulation known to retard aging and increase survival of mammals. The ability of hepatocytes isolated from young/adult (4- to 7-month-old) and old (22- to 28-month-old) male Fischer F344 rats fed ad libitum or a caloric restriction diet (60% of the content of the ad libitum diet) to express hsp70 was determined after a mild heat shock (42.5 degrees C for 30 min). We found that the induction of hsp70 synthesis and mRNA levels by heat shock was 40 to 50% lower in hepatocytes isolated from old rats than in hepatocytes isolated from young rats. Using in situ hybridization, we found that essentially all hepatocytes from the young/adult and old rats expressed hsp70 in response to heat shock; therefore, the age-related decrease in the induction of hsp70 expression was not due to an age-related accumulation of cells that do not respond to heat shock. Measurements of hsp70 mRNA stability and hsp70 transcription demonstrated that the age-related decline in hsp70 expression arose from a decline in hsp70 transcription. Interestingly, the age-related decline in the induction of hsp70 expression was reversed by caloric restriction; e.g., the induction of hsp70 synthesis, mRNA levels, and nuclear transcription were significantly higher in hepatocytes isolated from old rats fed the caloric restricted diet than in hepatocytes isolated from old rats fed ad libitum. The levels of the heat shock transcription factor in nuclear extracts isolated from heat-shocked hepatocytes were measured in a gel shift assay. Binding of the heat shock transcription factor to the heat shock element decreased with age and was significantly higher in hepatocyte extracts isolated from old rats fed the caloric restriction diet than in those from old rats fed ad libitum. Thus, our study demonstrates that the ability of hepatocytes to respond to hyperthermia and express hsp70 decreases significantly with age and that this decrease occurs at the transcriptional level. In addition, caloric restriction, which retards aging, reversed the age-related decline in the induction of hsp70 transcription in hepatocytes.