Apolipoprotein E (protein: apo E; gene: APOE) plays an important role in the multifactorial etiology of both Alzheimer's disease (AD) and lipid level concentrations. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was used to investigate the APOE gene polymorphism in 446 unrelated Caucasians, among them 23 AD patients, and 100 Afro-Brazilians living in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The frequencies of the APOE*2, APOE*3 and APOE*4 alleles were 0.075, 0.810 and 0.115 in Caucasians and 0.075, 0.700 and 0.225 in Afro-Brazilians, respectively (chi2 = 8.72, P = 0.013). A highly significant association was observed between the APOE*4 allele and AD in this population-based sample. The APOE*4 frequency in AD patients (39%) was about four times higher than in the general Caucasian population (11.5%). The influence of each of the three common APOE alleles on lipid traits was evaluated by the use of the average excess statistic. The E*2 allele is associated with lower levels of triglycerides and of total and non-HDL cholesterol in both men and women. Conversely, the E*4 allele is associated with higher levels of these traits in women only. The effect of APOE alleles was of greater magnitude in women.