This study was designed to define the effect of human aging on hypoglycemia counterregulatory mechanisms. A hyperinsulinemic (2 mU.kg-1.min-1) glucose clamp procedure was used to control glucose and insulin levels during stepwise lowering of plasma glucose. Counterregulatory hormones, hepatic glucose production (HGP), glucose utilization, and symptoms of hypoglycemia were studied in 13 healthy young [age 24 +/- 1 (SE) yr] and 11 healthy old (age 65 +/- 1 yr) nondiabetic volunteers on two occasions: 1) at matched euglycemia and 70 and 60 mg/dl (study 1) and 2) at matched euglycemia and 60 and 50 mg/dl (study 2). The old had consistently lower epinephrine (P < 0.005), glucagon (P < 0.02), cortisol (P < 0.05), and pancreatic polypeptide (P < 0.02) responses at the 60-mg/dl glucose step in study 1. However, these differences were no longer detectable at the more severe hypoglycemic stimulus of 50 mg/dl in study 2. A consistent increase in HGP occurred in both groups only at the 50-mg/dl glucose step (study 2) and was not different between young and old. There were also no differences in symptom responses between young and old. In summary, we found that elderly individuals have a subtle impairment of the glucose counterregulatory response during moderate hypoglycemia, but this impairment is no longer detectable during more severe hypoglycemia.