Epidemiological studies have suggested that patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) have increased mortality due to cardiovascular disease. We studied cardiac performance in 12 asymptomatic male patients with RA and 14 control subjects to elucidate early disturbances in cardiac function. In echocardiography, isovolumic relaxation time was longer (64 +/- 6 vs. 49 +/- 3 ms, mean +/- SEM, P = 0.010) and peak filling rate (134 +/- 10 vs. 159 +/- 6 mm s-1, P = 0.015) lower in patients with RA than in control subjects, reflecting an impairment in left ventricular diastolic function. Left ventricular systolic function assessed by radionuclide angiocardiography at rest and during exercise was similar in both groups. There were no differences between the patients with RA and control subjects in the heart rate, systolic blood pressure and oxygen uptake during peak exercise. Left ventricular diastolic function is impaired in spite of normal left ventricular systolic function in patients with RA without clinically evident cardiovascular disease and this may contribute to the excess of cardiovascular mortality in patients with RA.