Myocyte apoptosis increases with age in Fischer 344 rats, but the multiple molecular events implicated in this phenomenon remain to be identified. Several defects involving Ca2+ homeostasis, pH, and the expression of p53 and genes of the Bcl-2 protein family may contribute to the activation of myocyte death. Therefore, changes in intracellular pH, cytosolic Ca2+, DNase I and DNase II were measured in myocytes isolated by enzymatic digestion from rats of different ages. Moreover, the expression of p53, Bcl-2 and Bax in these cells was determined. Measurements of intracellular pH by BCECF fluorescence at 3, 12 and 24 months showed that this parameter did not change with age: 3 months, 7.20+/-0.05; 12 months, 7.21+/-0.07; 24 months, 7.18+/-0.09. In contrast, diastolic Ca2+ determined by the Fura 2-AM method increased progressively from 99.8+/-1.9 nm at 3 months to 136.3+/-9.6 nm at 24 months (P<0.001). Concurrently, DNase I activity evaluated by plasmid digestion assay in myocytes increased 3.2-fold from 3 to 24 months (P<0.02). Conversely, pH-dependent-DNase II remained essentially constant with age. Western blotting performed on ventricular myocytes did not detect significant changes in p53, Bax and Bcl-2 proteins with age. Similarly, immunocytochemically, the fraction of myocytes labeled by p53, Bax and Bcl-2 did not change from 3 to 24 months. In conclusion, myocyte aging is characterized by an increase in diastolic calcium which may activate DNase I triggering apoptosis, independently from the expression of p53, Bax and Bcl-2 in the cells.