While mitochondrial abnormalities are increasingly recognized in cardiac diseases including hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, their presence in idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy and the role that age plays in their incidence and severity have yet not been assessed. Levels of cardiac respiratory enzyme activities and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) were examined in 55 subjects with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy divided into 3 age groups. Respiratory enzyme activity levels were significantly lower in 37 patients (67%) compared to age-matched controls and increased activity levels were noted in 9 (16%). Decreased activities were found in complex I (n = 11), III (n = 16), IV (n = 12) and V (n = 13), but not in II, the only respiratory complex entirely nuclear-encoded. No age-specific differences were found in the overall frequency of enzymatic abnormalities. However, older patients had significantly increased multiple enzyme activity defects as well as increases in abundance and frequency of the 7.4 kb deletion. In addition, 3 patients were noted with marked reduction in mtDNA levels. None of the pathogenic mtDNA mutations previously associated with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy were found, nor was there any relationship that could be established between levels of specific mtDNA deletions and enzyme activities. In summary, specific mitochondrial abnormalities are heterogenous and frequent in both adults and children with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy. Older patients are more likely to have mtDNA deletions and multiple enzyme activity defects. The molecular basis for these abnormalities remains undefined. Copyright (C) 1999 Elsevier Science Inc.