The prevalence of obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS) is high in developed countries but its diagnosis is costly. Based on physiological evidence, the frequency component of heart rate variability (HRV) was evaluated as a simple and inexpensive diagnostic tool in OSAS. The predictive accuracy of frequency-domain HRV variables obtained from 24-hour ECG Holter monitoring (the power spectral density of the interbeat interval increment of very low frequencies, "VLFIpsd," and its percentage over the total power spectral density, "% VLFI"), and of established time-domain HRV variables were analyzed by comparison with respiratory disturbances indexes assessed by complete polysomnography in 124 consecutive patients (98 men aged 53.8 +/- 11.2 years) with clinically suspected OSAS. OSAS was present in 54 (43.5%) patients according to standard criteria. Using receiver operating characteristic curve analysis, two of the three most powerful predictors were frequency-domain variables: % VLFI (W = 0.80, P < 0.0001), and VL-FIpsd (W = 0.79, P < 0.0001). Using a multiple logistic regression analysis, %VLFI was the most strongly associated with diseased status (adjusted OR: 8.4; 95% CI: 3.4-19.5). Using an appropriate threshold, %VLFI demonstrated a diagnostic sensitivity of 87%. A 3-month continuous positive airway pressure treatment significantly improved the same parameter. Frequency-domain analysis of the interbeat interval increment appears as a powerful tool for OSAS diagnosis and follow-up. The simplicity of its analysis and of its use makes of it a well-suited variable for mass screening of OSAS patients.