Aging is commonly associated with decreased sleep quality and increased periodic breathing (PB) that can influence heart rate variability (HRV). Cardiac autonomic control, as inferred from HRV analysis, was determined, taking into account the sleep quality and breathing patterns. Two groups of 12 young (21.1 +/- 0.8 years) and 12 older (64.9 +/- 1.9 years) volunteers underwent electroencephalographic, cardiac, and respiratory recordings during one experimental night. Time and frequency domain indices of HRV were calculated in 5-min segments, together with electroencephalographic and respiratory power spectra. In the elderly, large R-R oscillations in the very-low frequency (VLF) range emerged, that reflected the frequency of PB observed in 18% of the sleep time. PB occurred more frequently during rapid eye movement sleep (REM) sleep and caused a significant (P < 0.02) increase in the standard deviation of normal R-R intervals (SDNN) and absolute low-frequency (LF) power. With normal respiratory patterns, SDNN, absolute VLF, LF, and high frequency (HF) power fell during each sleep stage (P < 0.01) compared with young subjects, with no significant sleep-stage dependent variations. An overall decrease (P < 0.01) in normalized HF/(LF + HF) was observed in the elderly, suggesting a predominant loss of parasympathetic activity which may be related to decreased slow-wave sleep duration. These results indicate that two distinct breathing features, implying different levels of autonomic drive to the heart, influence HRV in the elderly during sleep. The breathing pattern must be considered to correctly interpret HRV in the elderly.