Plasma levels of erythropoietin (mU/ml) were measured in patients with congestive heart failure (CHF) (n = 108) and in a control group of normal subjects (n = 45). In normal subjects, plasma levels of erythropoietin were 1.9 +/- 0.2. In patients with CHF, plasma levels of erythropoietin increased progressively according to New York Heart Association (NYHA) class (I: 1.4 +/- 0.2, n = 28; II: 5.4 +/- 0.8, n = 27; III: 9.6 +/- 2, n = 32; IV: 34 +/- 8, n = 21; F = 57.7, p < 0.001) and were significantly higher in NYHA classes II, III, and IV than in normal subjects. Plasma erythropoietin significantly decreased (from 43 +/- 14 to 12 +/- 3 mU/ml, p < 0.01) in patients with severe CHF (n = 9) when enalapril (20 mg/day administered orally) was added to long-term treatment for 3 weeks. Finally, in a subgroup of patients with NYHA class IV CHF (n = 9) and high plasma erythropoietin levels (37 +/- 9 mU/ml), packed red blood cell volume, assessed by the iodine-125-albumin dilution method, was higher than that in normal subjects (n = 11) (2,616 +/- 235 vs 2,028 +/- 119 ml, p < 0.05). The present study demonstrates that plasma erythropoietin levels are elevated in a large cohort of patients with CHF of varying etiology, and that this increase is related to the progression of the disease. The increase in circulating erythropoietin is associated with augmented packed red blood cell volume in patients with severe CHF. These results suggest a participation of erythropoietin in the complex neurohormonal response that occurs in CHF.