Whereas aging has been shown to be associated with striking reductions in circulating levels of adrenal androgens in humans, the alteration in adrenal function that occurs in aging has not been identified. We sought to determine if there are changes in the zonation of the adrenal in aging men by performing histomorphologic analyses of adrenal specimens that had been obtained at autopsy following sudden death due to trauma. We evaluated adrenals from 21 young men (20-29 yrs) and 12 older men (54-90 yrs); inclusion criteria required the presence of medullary tissue in the specimen and fixation within the first 24 hrs postmortem. Sections stained with H/E were examined microscopically and areas of the cortex that included adjacent medullary tissue were chosen for quantitative evaluation by use of a computerized image analysis system. The average width (arbitrary units, pixels) of the zona reticularis and that of the combined zonae fasciculata/glomerulosa were determined from sections stained for reticulum fibers. The zona reticularis represented 37.1 +/- 1.9% of the total cortical width in the young men, which was significantly greater than that of the older men (27.1 +/- 3.3%, P = 0.0082). The zona fasciculata/glomerulosa to zona reticularis ratio in the young men (1.84 +/- 0.15) was significantly less that that of the older men (3.29 +/- 0.47, P = 0.0011). There was no significant difference in the total width of the cortex in young compared to older men. These data suggest that aging results in alterations within the cortex of the adrenals in men such that there is a reduction in the size of the zona reticularis and a relative increase in the outer cortical zones. A reduced mass of the zona reticularis could be responsible for the diminished production of dehydroepiandrosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate that occurs during aging.