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Determinants of VO2 max decline with aging: an integrated perspective

Publication: Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism
4 January 2008


Aging is associated with a progressive decline in the capacity for physical activity. Central to this decline is a reduction in the maximal rate of oxygen utilization, or VO2 max. This critical perspective examines the roles played by the factors that determine the rate of muscle oxygen delivery versus those that determine the utilization of oxygen by muscle as a means of probing the reasons for VO2 max decline with aging. Reductions in muscle oxygen delivery, principally due to reduced cardiac output and perhaps also a maldistribution of cardiac output, appear to play the dominant role up until late middle age. On the other hand, there is a decline in skeletal muscle oxidative capacity with aging, due in part to mitochondrial dysfunction, which appears to play a particularly important role in extreme old age (senescence) where skeletal muscle VO2 max is observed to decline by approximately 50% even under conditions of similar oxygen delivery as young adult muscle. It is noteworthy that at least the structural aspects of the capillary bed do not appear to be reduced in a manner that would compromise the capacity for muscle oxygen diffusion even in senescence.


Le vieillissement s’accompagne d’une diminution graduelle de la capacité d’effort physique. La variable principalement touchée est le taux maximal d’utilisation de l’oxygène, soit le VO2 max. Dans cet article, nous analysons le rôle respectif joué par les facteurs du transport de l’oxygène vers les muscles et par ceux du système d’extraction d’oxygène effectué par les muscles afin d’identifier les facteurs responsables de la diminution du VO2 max dans le processus du vieillissement. La diminution du transport de l’oxygène vers les muscles, causée principalement par la diminution du débit cardiaque et probablement aussi par une mauvaise distribution du débit cardiaque, semble jouer le rôle principal jusque vers la fin de l’âge mûr. D’autre part, on observe une diminution de la capacité oxydative du muscle squelettique avec l’âge ; ce phénomène est attribuable en partie à des anomalies dans la mitochondrie qui semble jouer un rôle particulièrement important à un âge très avancé ; à cet âge, le VO2 max des muscles squelettiques est d’environ 50 % de la valeur observée chez un jeune adulte dans les mêmes conditions de fourniture d’oxygène. Notons cependant que les caractéristiques structurelles du lit capillaire ne semble pas modifiées de manière à compromettre la capacité de diffusion de l’oxygène même à un âge très avancé.

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cover image Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism
Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism
Volume 33Number 1February 2008
Pages: 130 - 140


Received: 16 February 2007
Accepted: 28 May 2007
Version of record online: 4 January 2008


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Key Words

  1. aging
  2. maximal oxygen consumption
  3. oxygen delivery
  4. capillaries
  5. mitochondria


  1. vieillissement
  2. consommation maximale d’oxygène
  3. transport de l’oxygène
  4. capillaires
  5. mitochondrie



Andrew C. Betik
Faculty of Kinesiology, University of Calgary, 2500 University Dr. NW, Calgary, AB T2N 1N4.
Russell T. Hepple (email: [email protected])
Faculty of Kinesiology, University of Calgary, 2500 University Dr. NW, Calgary, AB T2N 1N4.
Faculty of Medicine, University of Calgary, 2500 University Dr. NW, Calgary, AB T2N 1N4.

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