Surgery remains the cornerstone of therapy for medically operable patients with early-stage non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC). However, there are few reports on the short-term morbidity and long-term survival following surgery in elderly patients with NSCLC. The surgical experience in 280 patients with NSCLC at Indiana University from 1989-1999 are reported with a comparison of patients who are >or= 70 years versus < 70 years of age. Preoperative characteristics, operative procedures, postoperative courses, and survival were compared between the age groups. Fifty percent of elderly patients had squamous cell carcinoma and 36.2% had adenocarcinoma, versus 41.3% and 44.4% in younger patients, respectively. In both groups, most patients had T1 or T2 tumors and N0 disease. The majority of patients in both age groups had a lobectomy. However, more patients younger than 70 years had chest wall resections and were more likely to undergo a pneumonectomy (19.5% vs. 6.9%). The median number of postoperative hospital days was shorter for younger patients (9 days vs. 11 days). Overall, more complications occurred in older patients, but no significant difference in cardiac or pulmonary complications was observed between the groups. There was no significant difference in survival between the age groups. This single-institution series demonstrates that surgical intervention for appropriately selected elderly patients with NSCLC results in similar complication rates and long-term survival when compared to their younger counterparts.