We investigated the role of circulating 1,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol (1,25(OH)2D) and intestinal resistance to 1,25(OH)2D in the diminished intestinal calcium absorption capacity of the senescent rat. We measured plasma 1,25(OH)2D, total and unoccupied duodenal vitamin D receptor, duodenal calbindin D9k protein (calbindin D), and net dietary calcium absorption in rats at several ages. As expected, circulating 1,25(OH)2D, calbindin D, and net calcium absorption decreased with age. However, no age-related changes were evident in intestinal vitamin D receptor levels. We then measured duodenal calcium absorption from in situ intestinal loops after continuous s.c. infusion of 1,25(OH)2D for up to 6 days and found that despite a marked elevation of plasma 1,25(OH)2D duodenal calcium absorption was significantly lower in old compared with young rats. To assess calcium absorption over a wide physiological range of plasma 1,25(OH)2D, in a dose-response study we altered plasma 1,25(OH)2D by continuous infusion of 1,25(OH)2D (at 0, 4, or 14 ng/100 g BW/day) for 9 days. We found that the slope of the linear regression between plasma 1,25(OH)2D and duodenal Ca transport in old rats was only 46% of that observed in young rats, suggesting an age-related resistance of the duodenal calcium transport process to the hormonal action of 1,25(OH)2D. Collectively, our observations suggest a dual defect in vitamin D metabolism in old animals: one defect related to the low circulating levels of 1,25(OH)2D and a second defect related to a relative intestinal resistance to the action of 1,25(OH)2D, which is apparently not due to a reduction in intestinal vitamin D receptor levels.