This study examined the effect of age on left ventricular (LV) function, assessed by contrast ventriculography 3 weeks after a first acute myocardial infarction in 312 patients who received thrombolytic therapy within 4 hours of the onset of infarction and in 83 patients who received placebo. Streptokinase was given to 188 patients and recombinant tissue-type plasminogen activator (rt-PA) to 124. Patients were divided into 2 age groups: less than 60 years (n = 244) and greater than or equal to 60 years (n = 151). Thrombolytic therapy improved ejection fraction in both age groups: from 54 +/- 13 to 59 +/- 11% (p = 0.021) in the younger group and from 50 +/- 14 to 57 +/- 13% (p = 0.004) in the older group. Ejection fraction was identical in streptokinase- and rt-PA-treated patients. Multifactor analysis of variance revealed that younger age and thrombolytic therapy were independently associated with improved ejection fraction. Thrombolytic therapy also reduced end-systolic volume (p = 0.001) by 14 ml in the elderly and 9 ml in the younger group. Minor bleeding complications were more frequent in the elderly and 3 serious hemorrhages occurred in patients greater than or equal to 60 years. These findings reveal that thrombolysis improves LV function in all age groups studied. Because increasing age is independently associated with a lower ejection fraction after acute myocardial infarction, thrombolytic therapy may confer greater benefits in older patients.