To assess left atrial mechanical function in the elderly, 35 old (age > 70 years) and 18 sex-matched young (age < 50 years) healthy subjects were studied. Transmitral flow velocities were recorded with pulsed Doppler echocardiography. Left atrial volumes were measured echocardiographically at mitral valve opening (maximal) and closure (minimal) and at onset of atrial systole (P wave of the electrocardiogram) according to the biplane area-length method. Left atrial passive emptying was assessed with the passive emptying volume (maximal-volume at onset of atrial systole) and fraction (passive emptying volume/maximal). Left atrial active emptying was assessed with the active emptying volume (volume at onset of atrial systole-minimal) and fraction (active emptying volume/volume at onset of atrial systole) and with left atrial ejection force = 0.5.blood density.volume at onset of atrial systole.active emptying fraction.(A velocity)2/A integral. Left atrial volumes were greater in old compared with young subjects (maximal: 31 +/- 10 cm3/m2 vs 24 +/- 8 cm3/m2, p = 0.02; at onset of atrial systole: 23 +/- 8 cm3/m2 vs 15 +/- 5 cm3/m2, p = 0.0002; minimal: 13 +/- 5 cm3/m2 vs 9 +/- 4 cm3/m2, p = 0.001). Passive emptying volume and fraction were lower (7.8 +/- 1.7 cm3/m2 vs 9.2 +/- 3.2 cm3/m2 [p = 0.04] and 26.4% +/- 9.8% vs 37.9% +/- 11.2% [p = 0.003], respectively), whereas atrial ejection force and active emptying volume were greater in old compared with young subjects (6.8 +/- 3.3 kdynes/m2 vs 4.2 +/- 2.8 kdynes/m2 [p = 0.007] and 9.2 +/- 4.1 cm3/m2 vs 5.7 +/- 2.9 cm3/m2 [p = 0.002], respectively). The active emptying fraction was similar in the two groups (39.7% +/- 11% vs 38.4% +/- 13%; difference not significant). Thus advanced age is associated with depressed left atrial passive emptying function and increased left atrial volume. Left atrial dilation contributes to an increase in atrial ejection force and the amount of blood ejected during left atrial systole and may represent an important compensatory mechanism in this age population.