Plasma vitamin E levels and age have been positively correlated up to the sixth decade of life. Since antioxidants protect biomembranes in vivo against oxidative damage, it has been hypothesized that free radical scavengers such as vitamin E may have protective effects against aging. In the present study, plasma vitamin E and lipids were determined in 95 healthy volunteers [mean age (+/- S.D.) 55.9 +/- 24.5 yr]. Special attention was focused on vitamin E status in the elderly: 23 individuals were older than 80 years. A significant age effect (p less than 0.005) was observed for both vitamin E and cholesterol, both being increased in the middle-aged group (40-59 yr) and decreased in the elderly (greater than or equal to 80 yr). Since a high plasma cholesterol represents a major risk factor for ischemic heart disease, decreasing levels of plasma cholesterol with advancing age in a healthy population-sample appears to be the result of negative selection. Plasma vitamin E concentration was correlated (p less than 0.001) with total cholesterol, triglyceride, and total lipid. Since vitamin E is mainly transported by plasma lipoproteins, these strong correlations suggest that changes in vitamin E should be considered as an epiphenomenon of altered plasma transport capacity. The determination of plasma vitamin E is therefore a poor indicator of the real tissue vitamin E activity.