Indexes of left ventricular diastolic filling were measured by pulsed Doppler echocardiography in 21 insulin-dependent diabetic patients and 21 control subjects without clinical evidence of heart disease. No patient had chest pain or electrocardiographic changes during exercise testing. The mean age of patients was 32 years. All patients had a normal ejection fraction. Six (29%) of the 21 diabetic patients had evidence of diastolic dysfunction as assessed by the presence of at least two abnormal variables of mitral inflow velocity. The ratio of peak early to peak late (atrial) filling velocity was significantly decreased in diabetic compared with control subjects (1.24 +/- 0.21 versus 1.66 +/- 0.30, p. less than 0.001). Atrial filling velocity was significantly increased in diabetic patients (74.3 +/- 16.7 versus 60.3 +/- 12.2 cm/s, p less than 0.004), whereas early filling velocity was reduced by a nearly significant degree (88.8 +/- 12.6 versus 98.5 +/- 18.8 cm/s, p less than 0.057). The atrial contribution to stroke volume as assessed by area under the late diastolic filling envelope compared to total diastolic area was also significantly increased in diabetic compared with control subjects (35 versus 27%, p less than 0.001). Left ventricular diastolic filling abnormalities in diabetic patients did not correlate with duration of diabetes, retinopathy, nephropathy or peripheral neuropathy. These data suggest that approximately one-third of such patients have subclinical myocardial dysfunction unrelated to accelerated atherosclerosis. Doppler echocardiography may offer a reliable noninvasive means to assess diastolic function and to follow up diabetic patients serially for any deterioration in cardiac status before the appearance of clinical symptoms.