Reflex cutaneous vasoconstriction is impaired in older adults; however, the relative roles of altered skin sympathetic nerve activity (SSNA) and end-organ peripheral vascular responsiveness are unclear. We hypothesized that in older adults whole-body cooling would elicit a blunted SSNA response and cutaneous adrenergic responsiveness would be reduced. Twelve young adults (Y; 24 ± 1 years) and 12 older adults (O; 57 ± 2 years) participated in two protocols. In Protocol 1, SSNA (peroneal microneurography) and red cell flux in the affected dermatome (laser Doppler flowmetry; dorsum of foot) were measured during whole-body cooling (mean skin temperature (Tsk) 30.5°C; water-perfused suit). Mental stress was performed at mean Tsk 34.0°C (thermoneutral) and at 30.5°C. In Protocol 2, an intradermal microdialysis fibre was placed in the skin of the lateral calf for graded infusions of noradrenaline (norepinephrine) (NA; 10-12 to 10-2 m). Cutaneous vascular conductance (CVC = flux/mean arterial pressure) was expressed as a change from baseline (ΔCVCbase). Vasoconstriction was attenuated in O. SSNA increased significantly during cooling in Y (+184 ± 37%; P < 0.05) but not O (+51 ± 12%; P > 0.05). Mental stress at Tsk 30.5°C further increased SSNA in both groups. There was no age-related difference in adrenergic responsiveness to exogenous NA (logEC50: -6.41 ± 0.24 in Y, -6.37 ± 0.25 in O; P > 0.05). While the SSNA response to whole-body cooling is impaired with ageing, SSNA can be further increased by a non-thermoregulatory stimulus. Cutaneous adrenergic sensitivity is not reduced in O. These findings suggest that alterations in afferent signalling or central processing likely contribute to blunted SSNA responses to cooling and subsequent impairments in reflex cutaneous vasoconstriction in ageing.
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