The incidence of sleep-related breathing disorders (SRBDs) associated with hemoglobin desaturation was determined by nocturnal polygraphic evaluations in 26 healthy men, aged 55-70 years. Sixteen subjects (62%) had abnormal rates of at least 12 episodes per hour of sleep: 8 had occlusive, and 8 had central apnea or hypopnea. During waking ten of 16 SRBD subjects and only one subject without SRBDs exhibited either an elevated nasopharyngeal airway resistance (n = 4) or a reduced ventilatory response to hypercapnia (n = 4) and/or hypoxia (n = 3). However, these abnormalities were not related to the type or severity of SRBDs, and 6 subjects with SRBDs demonstrated no respiratory defect. We conclude that SRBDs have a very high incidence in older males and are not usually secondary to pulmonary cardiac, neurological, or behavioral disorders. Additionally, we hypothesize that abnormalities in ventilatory control or upper airway resistance contribute to SRBDs, but depression of brain stem reticular formation activity during sleep plays a primary role in these disorders. Factors related to both aging and SRBDs are reviewed. These include reduced chemoreceptor responses, altered steroid hormone metabolism, and use and metabolism of hypnotic drugs and alcohol.