1. Iodothyronine 5′-deiodinase, which is mainly responsible for peripheral triiodothyronine (T3) production, has recently been demonstrated to be a selenium-containing enzyme. In the elderly, reduced peripheral conversion of thyroxine (T4) to T3 and overt hypothyroidism are frequently observed.

2. We measured serum selenium and erythrocyte glutathione peroxidase (as indices of selenium status), thyroid hormones and thyroid-stimulating hormone in 109 healthy euthyroid subjects (52 women, 57 men), carefully selected to exclude abnormally low thyroid hormone levels induced by acute or chronic diseases or calorie restriction. The subjects were subdivided into three age groups. To avoid conditions of undernutrition or malnutrition, dietary records were obtained for a sample of 24 subjects, randomly selected and representative of the whole population for age and sex.

3. In order to properly assess the influence of selenium status on iodothyronine 5′-deiodinase type I activity, a double-blind placebo-controlled trial was also carried out on 36 elderly subjects, resident at a privately owned nursing home.

4. In the free-living population, a progressive reduction of the T3/T4 ratio (due to increased T4 levels) and of selenium and erythrocyte glutathione peroxidase activity was observed with advancing age. A highly significant linear correlation between T4, T3/T4 and selenium was observed in the population as a whole (for T4, R = −0.312, P < 0.002; for T3/T4 ratio, R = 0.32, P < 0.01) and in older subjects (for T4, R = −0.40, P < 0.05; for T3/T4 ratio, R = 0.54, P < 0.002).

5. The main result of the double-blind placebo-controlled trial was a significant improvement of selenium indices and a decrease in the T4 level in selenium-treated subjects; serum selenium, erythrocyte glutathione peroxidase activity and thyroid hormones did not change in placebo-treated subjects.

6. We concluded that selenium status influences thyroid hormones in the elderly, mainly modulating T4 levels.

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