Detailed medical family history data have been proposed to be effective in identifying high-risk families for targeted intervention. With use of a validated and standardized quantitative family risk score (FRS), the degree of familial aggregation of coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, hypertension, and diabetes was obtained from 122,155 Utah families and 6,578 Texas families in the large, population-based Health Family Tree Study, and 1,442 families in the NHLBI Family Heart Study in Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Utah. Utah families with a positive family history of CHD (FRS > or =0.5) represented only 14% of the general population but accounted for 72% of persons with early CHD (men before age 55 years, women before age 65 years) and 48% of CHD at all ages. For strokes, 11% of families with FRS > or =0.5 accounted for 86% of early strokes (<75 years) and 68% of all strokes. Analyses of >5,000 families sampled each year in Utah for 14 years demonstrated a gradual decrease in the frequency of a strong positive family history of CHD (-26%/decade) and stroke (-15%/decade) that paralleled a decrease in incidence rates (r = 0.86, p <0.001 for CHD; r = 0.66, p <0.01 for stroke). Because of the collaboration of schools, health departments, and medical schools, the Health Family Tree Study proved to be a highly cost-efficient method for identifying 17,064 CHD-prone families and 13,106 stroke-prone families (at a cost of about $27 per high-risk family) in whom well-established preventive measures can be encouraged. We conclude that most early cardiovascular events in a population occur in families with a positive family history of cardiovascular disease. Family history collection is a validated and relatively inexpensive tool for family-based preventive medicine and medical research.