We determined the beta-cell replicative rate, beta-cell apoptosis, cross-sectional beta-cell area, and pancreatic beta-cell mass throughout the entire postweaning lifespan (months 1, 3, 7, 10, 15, and 20) of Lewis rats. Beta-cell replication was progressively reduced in the initial months of life but remained stable after month 7 (month 1, 0.99 +/- 0.10%; month 3, 0.24 +/- 0.04%; month 7, 0.12 +/- 0.02%; month 10, 0.14 +/- 0.02%; month 15, 0.10 +/- 0.03%; month 20, 0.13 +/- 0.03%; analysis of variance [ANOVA], P < 0.001). Beta-cell apoptosis was low and did not change significantly from month 1 to 20 of life. Cross-sectional area of individual beta-cells increased progressively in the initial months, remained stable from month 7 to 15, and increased again on month 20. The estimated number of beta-cells per pancreas, calculated as the ratio of total beta-cell mass to individual beta-cell mass, tripled from month 1 to 7 but did not change significantly thereafter. Beta-cell mass increased approximately 8 times from month 1 to 20 (month 1, 2.04 +/- 0.28 mg; month 20, 15.5 +/- 2.32 mg; ANOVA, P < 0.001) and showed a strong and significant linear correlation with body weight (r = 0.98, P < 0.001). In summary, we have shown that beta-cell replication was maintained throughout the lifespan in normal rats, clearly establishing that the beta-cell birth rate does not fall to 0, even in very old rats. Beta-cell mass increased throughout the lifespan, closely matching the increment in total body weight at any time point. This increment was selective for beta-cells, since the growth of the endocrine non-beta-cell mass was limited to the initial months of life. Both beta-cell hypertrophy and hyperplasia contributed to increased beta-cell mass in young animals, but only beta-cell hypertrophy was responsible for the increased beta-cell mass found in old animals. This study provides a global perspective for understanding the dynamics of beta-cell mass in young, adult, and aged animals.

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