This study was performed to assess the effect of glucocorticoids (dexamethasone) on insulin- and IGF-I-regulated muscle protein metabolism in adult and old rats. Muscle atrophy occurred more rapidly in old rats, and recovery of muscle mass was impaired when compared with adults. Muscle wasting resulted mainly from increased protein breakdown in adult rat but from depressed protein synthesis in the aged animal. Glucocorticoid treatment significantly decreased the stimulatory effect of insulin and IGF-I on muscle protein synthesis in adult rats by 25.9 and 58.1% respectively. In old rats, this effect was even greater, being 49.3 and 100% respectively. With regard to muscle proteolysis, glucocorticoids blunted the anti-proteolytic action of insulin and IGF-I in both age groups. During the recovery period, adult rats reversed the glucocorticoid-induced resistance of muscle protein metabolism within 3 days, at which time old rats still exhibited the decrease in insulin-regulated proteolysis. In conclusion, the higher sensitivity of old rat muscle to glucocorticoids may in part result from the greater modification of the effects of insulin and IGF-I on muscle protein metabolism. These responses to glucocorticoids in old rats may be associated with the emergence of muscle atrophy with advancing age.