PURPOSE: To examine the effect of a short course of high-dose retinol (preformed vitamin A) on dark adaptation in older adults with normal retinal health or early age-related maculopathy (ARM). METHODS: The study design was a randomized, double-masked, placebo-controlled experiment. Adults > or = 50 years of age whose fundus photographs for the eye to be tested psychophysically fell within steps 1 to 9 of the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) Grading System were randomly assigned to a 30-day course of 50,000 IU oral retinol or a placebo. At baseline and 30-day follow-up, dark adaptation was tested and the Low Luminance Questionnaire (LLQ), an instrument for assessing difficulty with vision in reduced lighting, was administered. Primary outcomes of interest were rod- and cone-mediated parameters of dark adaptation, with scores on the LLQ's six subscales as secondary outcomes. RESULTS: The sample consisted of 104 participants with 52 each in the intervention and placebo groups. There were no group differences in baseline variables. At 30-days, the dark-adaptation parameters of cone time-constant, cone threshold, rod-cone break, and rod threshold did not differ. The retinol intervention group had significantly larger (i.e., steeper) rod slopes, indicating faster sensitivity recovery, than did the placebo group (P = 0.0419). There were no group differences in scores on the LLQ subscales driving, extreme lighting, emotional distress, general lighting, or peripheral vision. The retinol group had a higher score by five points on the mobility subscale compared with the placebo group (P = 0.0141). Those who had the most self-reported change on the mobility subscale at day 30 were more likely to have greater change in the speed of dark adaptation, as indicated by the rod slope parameter (r = 0.24, P = 0.0141). CONCLUSIONS: A short-term, high-dose course of retinol increased the rate of rod-mediated dark adaptation in older adults who were in the early phases of ARM or were exhibiting normal retinal aging. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that depositions and other structural changes in the retinal pigment epithelium and Bruch's membrane in aging and early ARM cause a localized retinoid deficiency.