A retrospective review of 399 cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) efforts in 329 veterans was performed to evaluate the observation that few geriatric patients were discharged alive after they underwent CPR. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation efforts with witnessed arrests were more frequently successful than efforts with unwitnessed arrests (47.7% vs 29.9%) and resulted in live discharge more often than efforts with unwitnessed arrests. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation efforts that resulted in a live discharge were more brief and involved a lower mean number of medication doses. Of the 77 CPR efforts in patients 70 years of age or older who had arrests, 24 (31%) were successful, and in 22 (92%), patients were alive after 24 hours. None lived to discharge. There were 322 CPR efforts in the younger cohort; 137 (43%) were successful, in 124 (91%) of these 137 efforts, patients were alive after 24 hours, and in 22 (16%), patients were discharged alive. Older patients were significantly less likely to live to discharge both at the time of arrest and 24 hours after successful resuscitation. When a multivariate analysis was used, the presence of sepsis, cancer, increased age, increased number of medication doses administered, and absence of witness were all "predictive" of poor outcome. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation should be administered only to those who have the greatest potential benefit from this emotionally and physically traumatic procedure.