Coronary artery disease may be difficult to diagnose in the elderly because its clinical symptomatology is frequently atypical and because the performance of submaximal tests makes exercise stress testing sometimes unreliable. Dobutamine stress testing may be a useful alternative in such patients. This study compared the safety and accuracy of dobutamine stress echocardiography in 73 'young' (< 60 years old) and 63 'old' (> or = 60 years old) patients without previous myocardial infarction undergoing diagnostic coronary angiography. The sensitivity in young patients (79%, (67-91, 95% CI)) was similar to that in old patients (80% (69-91, 95% CI)). Similar levels of specificity (88% (75-101, 95% CI) vs 75% (54-96, 95% CI)) were found in the two groups. Both groups showed a trend to a higher sensitivity for multi-vessel disease than for single-vessel disease. No major side effect occurred during the entire study and peak dose (40 micrograms.kg-1.min-1) was attained with similar frequency in both groups (56% vs 49%). Minor side effects occurred equally in 'young' and 'old' patients and never persisted more than a few minutes after ending the first infusion of dobutamine. Dobutamine echocardiography appears to be safe and accurate for the detection of coronary artery disease regardless of age.