Sympathetic neural reactivity to stress does not increase with age in healthy humans

A. V. Ng, R. Callister, D. G. Johnson, D. R. Seals

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

113 Scopus citations


Sympathetic nervous system reactivity to stress is thought to increase with age in humans. We tested this hypothesis by recording postganglionic sympathetic nerve activity to skeletal muscle (MSNA) (peroneal microneurography) and by measuring plasma norepinephrine concentrations (PNE), heart rate, and arterial pressure before (prestress control) and during cognitive challenge (mental arithmetic and colored word test), thermal stress (i.e., the cold pressor test), and exhaustive isometric handgrip exercise (40% of maximum voluntary force)/postexercise ischemia in 15 older (60-74 yr, mean ± SE = 64. ± 1) and 15 young (19-30 yr, mean ± SE = 25 ± 1) healthy men and women (8 males, 7 females each). The initial prestress control level of MSNA was higher in the older subjects (P < 0.01 vs. young), but there were no significant differences for PNE, heart rate, or arterial pressure. The MSNA and PNE responses to mental stress were small and not different in the two groups. MSNA and PNE increased markedly in response to the cold pressor test and isometric handgrip exercise/post exercise ischemia in both groups. The absolute unit increases in MSNA were similar in the two groups, but the relative (percentage) increases were actually smaller in the older subjects (P < 0.05 vs. young) due to their elevated baseline levels. The stress-evoked increases in arterial pressure were similar in the groups, but the older subjects tended to demonstrate smaller increases in heart rate. In general, no gender differences were noted in either age group. These findings fail to support the long-held concept that stress-induced sympathetic nervous system stimulation becomes exaggerated with age. Thus, sympathetic neural hyperreactivity does not appear to be a fundamental property of the aging process in humans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)H344-H353
JournalAmerican Journal of Physiology - Heart and Circulatory Physiology
Issue number1 36-1
StatePublished - 1994


  • aging
  • autonomic nervous system
  • exercise
  • mental stress
  • sympathetic activity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Cardiology and Cardiovascular Medicine
  • Physiology (medical)


Dive into the research topics of 'Sympathetic neural reactivity to stress does not increase with age in healthy humans'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this