Changes in Protein, Carbohydrate, and Fat Metabolism with Aging: Possible Role of Insulin


  • Paolo Tessari M.D.

    1. Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, University of Padova, 35128 Padova, Italy. He is also with the Department of Internal Medicine and Endocrinology, University of Bari, 70124 Bari, Italy.
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Age is associated with modifications of body composition, i.e., an increase in body fat mass and a decrease in protein mass. Because insulin controls substrate disposal and production, these changes could theoretically be related to changes in either insulin action or secretion on the various substrates. On the basis of available evidence, insulin action on whole-body amino acid and protein metabolism seems not to be impaired in the aged. Decreased synthesis of contractile and mitochondrial proteins in muscle, associated with decreased gene expression, was described in humans. Decreased physical activity apparently represents an important factor responsible for decreased muscle protein synthesis and mass in the elderly. Exercise in the elderly may acutely revert these changes, although its chronic effects are still uncertain. In addition, the possible interaction between insulin and exercise in the maintenance of muscle mass needs to be specifically investigated in aged people. Higher free fatty acid (FFA) absolute flux and oxidation rates were observed in healthy elderly subjects in both the fasting state and following hyperinsulinemia, but not when normalized over fat mass. This suggests that FFA kinetics reflect the established changes in fat mass. Insulin sensitivity on glucose metabolism is usually normal in the aged, despite subtle impairments in insulin secretion, hepatic uptake, and onset of action. Finally, data support the operation of the Randle cycle (i.e., inverse relationships between fat and glucose oxidation) in the elderly