Cardiac function of 30 patients who were morbidly obese was studied before bariatric surgery. Twelve patients were studied 13 +/- 4 months after surgery. These patients had a mean age of 37.1 +/- 2.9 years and a body mass index of 50.0 +/- 1.4 kg/m2. Cardiac function was measured by echocardiography, radionuclide angiography scanning, and right heart catheterization. To determine the degree of cardiac dysfunction, the patients were studied with exercise and intravenous fluid challenges. Ultrasonography produced evidence of myocardial thickening with an increased interventricular septum in eight patients (32%) and increased left ventricular mass in 17 patients (53%). The radionuclide scan suggested that morbid obesity was associated with a significantly (p less than 0.05) increased end-diastolic volume and decreased left ventricular ejection fraction as compared with patients who were of normal weight. With exercise the patient who was of normal weight had an increase in the end-diastolic volume, stroke volume, and heart rate, but the patient who was morbidly obese only increased heart rate to produce the necessary increase in cardiac output. Right heart catheterization indicated that the relationship of the pulmonary wedge pressure and the left ventricular stroke work index was abnormal in 14 of 29 patients (48.3%) and depressed in six of 29 patients (20.7%) with exercise. One liter of fluid caused an abnormal relationship of the pulmonary wedge pressure and the left ventricular stroke work index in 12 of 30 patients (40%) and a depressed response in 10 of 30 patients (33.3%). Cardiac studies were repeated in 12 patients after a 54.8 +/- 1.9 kg weight loss. Echocardiography indicated a decrease in dilatation (27.3% to 9.1%) and a significant (p less than 0.05) decrease in hypertrophy (45.5% to 0%). After the weight loss, radionuclide and right heart catheterization studies indicated improved cardiac function with reduced filling pressures and increased left ventricular work during fluid and exercise challenges. These results support the presence of obesity-related cardiomyopathy with ventricular dysfunction, which appears to be caused by a noncompliant ventricle. Significant weight loss achieved with gastroplasty results in increased ventricular compliance and improved cardiac function.