Few studies have assessed the prevalence and outcome of acute renal failure (ARF) in the elderly. Among 437 ARF cases prospectively studied during a nine-year period in a nephrology department, 152 (35%) occurred in patients over 70 years of age (Group 1). Patients over 70 account for only 10.5% of all hospital admissions in our country, and prevalence of ARF was 3.5 times higher in these patients than in younger people. Acute tubular necrosis (ATN) was diagnosed in 40% of Group 1 and 52% of the younger patients (Group 2) (P less than .05), whereas prerenal ARF was found in 47% and 32%, respectively (P less than .001). Dehydration was the most frequent cause of prerenal ARF in the elderly (51%). The etiological distribution of ATN was similar in both groups, being of multifactorial origin in most cases. Oliguria was present in 49% of ATN in Group 1 and in 66% of Group 2 (P less than .05). There were no significant differences in dialysis needs. Mortality was higher in the elderly in all types of ARF, although differences did not reach statistical significance. Need for dialysis, mechanical respiration, decreased level of consciousness, and hypotension were associated with poor prognosis in both groups. Total recovery from ARF in older persons was less frequent and slower than in younger patients. It may be concluded that patients over 70 years of age are at high risk for developing ARF; nevertheless, age should not be used as a discriminating factor in therapeutic decisions concerning ARF.