Respiratory gas exchange was used to assess left ventricular (LV) function in 22 patients with severe aortic regurgitation (19 men and three women, aged 18 and 70 years, mean 49 years). Anaerobic threshold and symptom-limited maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) were measured during treadmill exercise, and the results were compared with conventional echocardiographic and radionuclide indices of LV systolic function. The results were considered with respect to the patients' New York Heart Association functional class. Both rest and exercise LV ejection fractions were variable, but the mean results were similar in all classes. The echocardiographic indices of LV cavity dimensions, fractional shortening, radius/thickness ratio, and systolic wall stress also showed a wide range but with similar mean results in each class. In contrast, VO2 max and anaerobic threshold showed a relationship to functional class. VO2 max was 32.4 +/- 3.4 ml/kg/min in age-matched control subjects; in the patients it was 27.9 +/- 4.7 in class I, 24.7 +/- 5.7 in class II, and 14.2 +/- 2 in the combined class III/IV. Results in patients in classes I and II were similar, but both groups were significantly different from control subjects (p less than 0.05) and from patients in class III/IV (p less than 0.01). About half of the patients with moderate LV dysfunction (judged by reduced VO2 max) were asymptomatic, and LV function was impaired in 4 of 10 patients in class I. Thus, unlike conventional indices of LV function, VO2 max appeared capable of distinguishing patients with moderate-to-severe LV dysfunction from those with little or no LV dysfunction. Measurement of respiratory gas exchange appears to be a valid and useful supplementary means of assessing LV function in severe aortic regurgitation. Further long-term evaluation is required.