To lay the groundwork for devising, improving and implementing strategies to prevent or delay the onset of disability in the elderly, we conducted a systematic literature review of longitudinal studies published between 1985 and 1997 that reported statistical associations between individual base-line risk factors and subsequent functional status in community-living older persons. Functional status decline was defined as disability or physical function limitation. We used MEDLINE, PSYCINFO, SOCA, EMBASE, bibliographies and expert consultation to select the articles, 78 of which met the selection criteria. Risk factors were categorized into 14 domains and coded by two independent abstractors. Based on the methodological quality of the statistical analyses between risk factors and functional outcomes (e.g. control for base-line functional status, control for confounding, attrition rate), the strength of evidence was derived for each risk factor. The association of functional decline with medical findings was also analyzed. The highest strength of evidence for an increased risk in functional status decline was found for (alphabetical order) cognitive impairment, depression, disease burden (comorbidity), increased and decreased body mass index, lower extremity functional limitation, low frequency of social contacts, low level of physical activity, no alcohol use compared to moderate use, poor self-perceived health, smoking and vision impairment. The review revealed that some risk factors (e.g. nutrition, physical environment) have been neglected in past research. This review will help investigators set priorities for future research of the Disablement Process, plan health and social services for elderly persons and develop more cost-effective programs for preventing disability among them.