Accelerated atherosclerosis is the leading cause of death in patients with non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM). Impaired endogenous fibrinolytic activity may accelerate atherosclerosis by exposing vascular luminal wall surfaces to persistent and recurrent thrombi and clot-associated mitogens. This study was conducted to further characterize endogenous fibrinolysis in lean and obese nondiabetic subjects and in NIDDM patients and to identify mechanisms responsible for the alterations identified. Obese and diabetic subjects had threefold elevations of plasma concentrations of plasminogen activator inhibitor type 1 (PAI-1) compared with values in lean control subjects. Despite the lack of significant differences in plasma concentrations of tissue-type plasminogen activator in the obese and diabetic subjects, both basal and stimulated endogenous fibrinolytic activities were decreased. The decreases were associated with increased activity of PAI-1 in plasma, in turn correlated with increased concentrations of immunoreactive insulin and C-peptide. These results are consistent with our previous observations demonstrating direct stimulatory effects of insulin and its precursors on cellular expression of PAI-1 in vitro and observations by others demonstrating decreased basal fibrinolytic activity in NIDDM patients. Impaired endogenous fibrinolytic activity could lead to prolonged or recurrent exposure of luminal surfaces of vessel walls to microthrombi and clot-associated mitogens that may accelerate atherosclerosis in hyperinsulinemic subjects.