We studied the circadian rhythm of plasma melatonin, growth hormone (GH), prolactin (PRL), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and cortisol in 52 mentally healthy old subjects, 35 old demented patients, and 22 clinically healthy young controls. When compared to young controls, the circadian profile of plasma melatonin of old subjects, both demented or not, was clearly flattened, particularly during the night. The selective impairment of nocturnal melatonin secretion was significantly related to both the age and the severity of mental impairment (Mini Mental State Examination [MMSE] score). The PRL and GH circadian profiles were similar in the three groups during the day, but a significant lowering of the values recorded during the night occurred with aging. The impairment of the nocturnal secretion was related to the subjects' age and, for the GH secretory pattern only, also to the MMSE score. The ACTH circadian profile was similar in the three groups studied, even when old subjects exhibited higher ACTH levels throughout the 24 h cycle, compared to young controls. Significantly higher cortisol values at evening- and nighttime occurred in elderly subjects and particularly in the demented group. Both the mean levels and the nadir values of plasma cortisol were positively related to age and negatively to MMSE score. In order to verify the sensitivity of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to the steroid feedback, the circadian profile of plasma cortisol was evaluated also after dexamethasone (DXM) administration (1 mg at 23:00 h); the sensitivity of the HPA axis was significantly impaired in old subjects and particularly in the demented ones. These findings suggest that the neuroendocrine alterations already present in physiological aging, due to both anatomical damages and unbalanced central neurotransmitters, are enhanced in senile dementia.
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