Despite the aging of our population, there remains a paucity of information about gastroesophageal reflux (GER) in the elderly. To assess the prevalence and characteristics of GER within this patient population, questionnaires evaluating symptoms associated with GER were administered to 313 consecutive patients 62 yr old or older from a primary care setting. Fourteen percent of these patients reported having at least weekly heartburn. Ambulatory 24-h esophageal pH monitoring was accomplished in 54 of the 313 patients surveyed. Twenty percent (11/54) of this subgroup exhibited increased acid contact time (pH less than 4 for more than 6% of the monitoring period). Twenty-two percent (12/54) complained of heartburn, yet only six individuals (11%) exhibited both symptomatic and objective indications of acid reflux. Surprisingly, 31% (17/54) of the patients studied exhibited significant alkalinity within the distal esophagus (pH greater than 8 for greater than 1.5% of the monitoring period). Whereas 29% of these patients (5/17) reported heartburn, 40% of those reporting heartburn (2/5) had acid GER as well as excessive alkalinity. In contrast to patients with acid GER--none of whom reported pulmonary symptoms--24% (4/17) of these patients with esophageal alkalinity reported wheezing, nocturnal cough, or paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea. Of the four patients with significant distal esophageal exposure to both acid and alkali, two reported heartburn and a third reported dysphagia. In addition to the somewhat higher prevalence of acid reflux than anticipated, a surprisingly high prevalence of esophageal alkalinity was observed.