A number of trials and meta-analyses have demonstrated clear benefits of blood pressure (BP) reduction in patients aged <80 years with regard to the reduction in stroke and cardiovascular events. However, a variety of studies have suggested that the positive relationship between BP and cardiovascular mortality is weakened or indeed reversed in the very elderly. Most intervention trials to date have either excluded or not recruited sufficient patients aged > or =80 years to determine whether there is a significant benefit from treatment in this age group. A meta-analysis of intervention trials that recruited patients aged > or =80 years has suggested a benefit in terms of stroke reduction but has also raised the possibility of an increase in total mortality. The benefit to risk ratio therefore needs to be clearly established before recommendations can be made for treating very elderly patients with hypertension. The Hypertension in the Very Elderly Trial (HYVET) pilot recruited 1283 patients aged > or =80 years and showed the feasibility of performing such a trial in this age group. It was a Prospective Randomised Open Blinded End-Points (PROBE) design but the main trial has additional pharmaceutical sponsorship to run a double-blind trial. Therefore, the main trial is a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial designed to assess the benefits of treating very elderly patients with hypertension. It compares placebo with a low dose diuretic (indapamide sustained release 1.5mg daily) and additional ACE inhibitor (perindopril) therapy if required. As in the pilot trial, the primary end-point is stroke events (fatal and non-fatal) and the trial is designed to determine whether or not a 35% difference occurs between placebo and active treatment. The main objective will be achieved with 90% power at the 1% level of significance. Secondary outcome measures will include total mortality, cardiovascular mortality, cardiac mortality, stroke mortality and skeletal fracture. 2100 patients aged > or =80 years are to be recruited and followed up for an average of 5 years. Entry BP criteria after 2 months of a single-blind placebo run-in period are a sustained sitting systolic BP (SBP) of 160 to 199mm Hg and a diastolic BP of 90 to 109mm Hg. The standing SBP must be >140mm Hg. The trial will be carried out in accordance with the principles of Good Clinical Practice. We describe in detail the protocol for the main trial and discuss the reasons for the changes from the pilot, the use of the drug regimen, and the BP criteria to be used in the trial.