BACKGROUND: Although cigarette smoking is the leading avoidable cause of premature death in middle age, some have claimed that no association is present among older persons. METHODS: We prospectively examined the relation of cigarette-smoking habits with mortality from all causes, cardiovascular causes, and cancer among 7178 persons 65 years of age or older without a history of myocardial infarction, stroke, or cancer who lived in one of three communities: East Boston, Massachusetts; Iowa and Washington counties, Iowa; and New Haven, Connecticut. At the time of the initial interview, prevalence rates of smoking in the three communities ranged from 5.2 to 17.8 percent among women and from 14.2 to 25.8 percent among men. During five years of follow-up there were 1442 deaths, 729 due to cardiovascular disease and 316 due to cancer. RESULTS: In both sexes, rates of total mortality among current smokers were twice what they were among participants who had never smoked. Relative risks, as adjusted for age and community, were 2.1 among the men (95 percent confidence interval, 1.7 to 2.7) and 1.8 among the women (95 percent confidence interval, 1.4 to 2.4). Current smokers had higher rates of cardiovascular mortality than those who had never smoked (as adjusted for age and community, the relative risk was 2.0 [95 percent confidence interval, 1.4 to 2.9] among the men and 1.6 [95 percent confidence interval, 1.1 to 2.3] among the women), as well as increased rates of cancer mortality (relative risk, 2.4 [95 percent confidence interval, 1.4 to 4.1] among the men and 2.4 [95 percent confidence interval, 1.4 to 3.9] among the women). In both sexes, former smokers had rates of cardiovascular mortality similar to those of the participants who had never smoked, regardless of age at cessation, whereas the rates for all cancers, as well as smoking-related cancers, remained elevated among men who had once smoked. CONCLUSIONS: Our prospective findings indicate that the mortality hazards of smoking extend well into later life, and suggest that cessation will continue to improve life expectancy in older people.