This article focuses on the effects of operational differences in case ascertainment on estimates of prevalence and incidence of cognitive impairment and/or dementia of the Alzheimer type. Experience and insights are discussed by investigators from the Framingham Heart Study, the East Boston Senior Health Project, the Chicago Health and Aging Project, the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging, the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, and the Aging, Demographics, and Memory Study. There is a general consensus that the single most important factor determining prevalence estimates of Alzheimer's disease (AD) is the severity of cognitive impairment used as a threshold to define cases. Studies that require a level of cognitive impairment in which persons are unable to provide self-care will have much lower estimates than the studies aimed at identifying persons in the earliest stages of AD. There are limited autopsy data from the aforementioned epidemiological studies to address accuracy in the diagnosis of etiological subtype, namely the specification of AD alone or in combination with other types of pathology. However, other community-based cohort studies show that many persons with mild cognitive impairment and also some persons without dementia or mild cognitive impairment meet pathological criteria for AD, thereby suggesting that the number of persons who would benefit from an effective secondary prevention intervention is probably higher than the published prevalence estimates. Improved accuracy in the clinical diagnosis of AD is anticipated with the addition of molecular and structural biomarkers in the next generation of epidemiological studies. © 2011 The Alzheimers Association. All rights reserved.