Arterial blood pressure (BP) is regulated via the interaction of various local, humoral, and neural factors. In humans, the major neural pathway for acute BP regulation involves the baroreflexes. In response to baroreceptor activation/deactivation, as occurs during transient changes in BP, key determinants of BP, such as cardiac period/heart rate (via the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system) and vascular resistance (via the sympathetic nervous system), are modified to maintain BP homeostasis. In this review, the effects of aging on both the parasympathetic and sympathetic arms of the baroreflex are discussed. Aging is associated with decreased cardiovagal baroreflex sensitivity (i.e., blunted reflex changes in R-R interval in response to a change in BP). Mechanisms underlying this decrease may involve factors such as increased levels of oxidative stress, vascular stiffening, and decreased cardiac cholinergic responsiveness with age. Consequences of cardiovagal baroreflex impairment may include increased levels of BP variability, an impaired ability to respond to acute challenges to the maintenance of BP, and increased risk of sudden cardiac death. In contrast, baroreflex control of sympathetic outflow is not impaired with age. Collectively, changes in baroreflex function with age are associated with an impaired ability of the organism to buffer changes in BP. This is evidenced by the reduced potentiation of the pressor response to bolus infusion of a pressor drug after compared to before systemic ganglionic blockade in older compared with young adults.
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