Aging is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease, but mechanisms leading to vascular dysfunction have not been fully elucidated. Recent studies suggest that oxidative stress may increase in blood vessels during aging. Levels of superoxide are influenced by the activity of SODs. The goal of this study was to examine the effect of extracellular superoxide dismutase (ECSOD) on superoxide levels and vascular function in an animal model of aging. Aortas from young (4-8 mo old) and old (29-31 mo old) Fischer 344 rats were examined in vitro. Relaxation of aorta to ACh was impaired in old rats compared with young rats; e.g., 3 muM ACh produced 57 +/- 4% (mean +/- SE) and 84 +/- 2% relaxation in old and young rats, respectively (P < 0.0001). Three days after gene transfer of adenovirus expressing human ECSOD (AdECSOD), the response to ACh was not affected in young rats but was improved in old rats. There was no difference in relaxation to the endothelium-independent dilator sodium nitroprusside between young, aged, and AdECSOD-treated old rats. Superoxide levels (lucigenin-enhanced chemiluminescence) were significantly increased in aged rats compared with young rats. After gene transfer of ECSOD to aged rats, superoxide levels in aorta were similar in old and young rats. Gene transfer of an ECSOD with the heparin-binding domain deleted had no effect on vascular function or superoxide levels in old rats. These results suggest that 1) vascular dysfunction associated with aging is mediated in part by increased levels of superoxide, 2) gene transfer of ECSOD reduces vascular superoxide and dysfunction in old rats, and 3) beneficial effects of ECSOD in old rats require the heparin-binding domain of ECSOD.