Most studies on the effect of aging on esophageal motor function have shown that peristaltic function deteriorates with age. Esophageal motor function is traditionally studied by means of manometry and radiography. Distension of the esophagus with evaluation of active and passive mechanical parameters have become available during recent years. In this study, we did a manometric swallow analysis and used the distension method to study esophageal properties and function during aging. An impedance planimetric probe with a bag for distension was placed in the distal esophagus of 25 healthy volunteers with a median age of 35 (range 23-86) years. Distensions were done at an infusion rate of 25 ml min(-1) with and without relaxation of neuromuscular activity with butylscopolamine. The infusion was reversed when moderate pain was experienced by the subjects. Swallow-induced contraction amplitudes decreased as function of age for persons older than 40 years (P < 0.05). The total and passive tension showed an exponential increase as function of the change in radius, whereas the active tension increased until it reached a local maximum point. The maximum active tension deteriorated as a function of age after the age of 40 years (P < 0.05). Furthermore, esophagus became stiffer with age. In conclusion, age-related changes of increased stiffness and reduced primary and secondary peristalsis were found in the human esophagus with a deterioration of esophageal function after the age of 40 years. Such changes may contribute to the high prevalence of reflux disease in elderly.