Studies were performed to examine the decrease in ventilatory response to hypoxia and hypercapnia in the elderly and to explore its etiology. For this purpose, matched groups of normal elderly (65 to 79 yr of age) and young subjects were used. Standard pulmonary function tests were supplemented in both groups by determination of total respiratory compliance and the ventilatory responses to hyperoxic hypercapnia and isocapnic hypoxia using rebreathing methods. While testing the ventilatory responses, we recorded minute ventilation and its components, as well as mouth occlusion pressures, and rib cage and abdominal-diaphragmatic compartmental ventilation (magnetometry). We found that ventilatory responses to both hypercapnia and hypoxia were reduced in the elderly by approximately 50%. These reductions were not related to any change in control of respiratory timing, but to a large reduction in mean inspiratory airflow. The reduced airflow could not be attributed to alterations in pulmonary mechanics since the differences in mechanics between the groups were small. Instead, since the occlusion pressure responses to hypercapnia and hypoxia were reduced in the elderly proportionately to the ventilatory responses, reduction in neuromuscular inspiratory output was likely to be the major factor.