Severe chest trauma does not independently predict poor outcome in elderly patients. We chose a specific injury, flail chest, to determine whether age factored into outcome of these patients. A retrospective chart review of all trauma admissions to our Level I trauma center between January 1994 and January 1998 sustaining flail chest was undertaken. Sixty-eight patients were identified, but ten patients were excluded because of death on arrival. Fifty-eight patients were included in the study and separated into groups. The first group comprised those under the age of 55 (n = 32) and the second comprised those over age 55 (n = 26). Parameters evaluated were age, Injury Severity Score (ISS), neurologic injury, the need for mechanical ventilation, need for tracheostomy, length of stay, and death. Statistical analysis was performed with Wilcoxon t test, chi2, and logistic regression where appropriate. A 95 per cent confidence interval was sought as determinant of significance. Of the 58 surviving patients analyzed there was no significant difference between the groups regarding ISS, length of stay, days on the ventilator, head injury, tracheostomy, or development of pneumonia or adult respiratory distress syndrome. The likelihood of death was shown to increase by 132 per cent for every 10 years starting at the second decade and continuing to the eighth decade of life. The likelihood of death also increased by 30 per cent for each unit increase in ISS. The likelihood of death decreased by 23 per cent for every day survived in the hospital. Blunt chest trauma directly impacts respiratory mechanics. Elderly patients are more likely to have comorbid conditions and less likely to tolerate traumatic respiratory compromise. Age (and its effects on the body) is the strongest predictor of outcome with flail chest and is associated with an increased mortality (P < or = 0.05).