A high degree of heart rate (HR) variability is found in compensated hearts with good function, whereas HR variability can be decreased with severe coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, aging and diabetic neuropathy. To test the hypothesis that HR variability is a predictor of long-term survival after acute myocardial infarction (AMI), the Holter tapes of 808 patients who survived AMI were analyzed. Heart rate variability was defined as the standard deviation of all normal RR intervals in a 24-hour continuous electrocardiogram recording made 11 +/- 3 days after AMI. In all patients demographic, clinical and laboratory variables were measured at baseline. Mean follow-up time was 31 months. Of all Holter variables measured, HR variability had the strongest univariate correlation with mortality. The relative risk of mortality was 5.3 times higher in the group with HR variability of less than 50 ms than the group with HR variability of more than 100 ms. HR variability remained a significant predictor of mortality after adjusting for clinical, demographic, other Holter features and ejection fraction. A hypothesis to explain this finding is that decreased HR variability correlates with increased sympathetic or decreased vagal tone, which may predispose to ventricular fibrillation.