This review addresses the difficulty in interpreting the results of epidemiological studies in IBD and in making meaningful comparisons between studies. Both ulcerative colitis and Crohn disease appear to be more common in some industrialized countries such as Scandinavia, United Kingdom, North America and less common in Central and Southern Europe, Asia and Africa. Given data showing an increased incidence of ulcerative colitis in the United Kingdom, it is crucial that more studies be conducted in developing countries. While the incidence of Crohn disease has increased strikingly in many areas, the incidence of ulcerative colitis has remained fairly stable in most. This could be due to the rising number of community-based studies, as well as the improved accuracy in diagnosing Crohn disease. Although, the incidence of IBD among Blacks in Africa is low, infection rates are high, life expectancy is lower than in developed countries. Data from the USA suggest that rates are similar in Afro-American and Caucasian populations. Rates for Jewish populations may be slightly higher than in non-Jewish populations but this also varies geographically. Careful attention to genetic, environmental, and socioeconomic factors must be accounted for in these studies. There is no strong evidence to support that IBD is more common in urban than in rural settings and migration towards more accessible health care has not been adequately addressed. Recent epidemiological studies suggest that mortality rates for IBD are similar to that of the general population for the majority of patients. However, older patients with IBD and newly diagnosed cases with severe diseases are at increased risk of dying. Epidemiological studies remain important in assisting with health policy planning and in hypothesis testing of etiological factors. As better diagnostic techniques become widely available and public health registries are increasingly used, it is possible that geographic differences will diminish. International collaborative studies will be better equipped to answer research questions addressing risk factors and disease natural history. We have summarized in Table V the essential criteria to conduct a sound epidemiological study, which would permit future testing of hypotheses among different populations.