The association between clinical coronary artery disease, cerebrovascular disease, and aortic atherosclerosis has not been examined in the general population. Transesophageal echocardiography was performed in 581 subjects, a random sample of the Olmsted County (Minnesota) population aged >/=45 years, participating in the Stroke Prevention: Assessment of Risk in a Community (SPARC) study. The frequency and severity of atherosclerosis of the thoracic aorta were determined in the population and the association between clinical coronary artery disease, cerebrovascular disease, and aortic atherosclerosis was examined. Previous myocardial infarction, angina pectoris, and coronary artery bypass surgery were significantly associated with aortic atherosclerosis, adjusting for age and gender (p </=0.01). Among subjects with atherosclerosis, these manifestations were associated with complex atherosclerosis (plaques >4-mm thick, ulcerated plaques, or mobile debris), adjusting for age and gender (p <0.05). Age, smoking, pulse pressure, previous myocardial infarction (odds ratio [OR] 4.67; 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.42 to 15.40), and coronary artery bypass surgery (OR 5.12; 95% CI 1.01 to 26.01) were independently associated with aortic atherosclerosis. Among subjects with atherosclerosis, age, smoking, pulse pressure, hypertension treatment, and coronary artery disease (OR 2.50; 95% CI 1.18 to 5.30) were independently associated with complex atherosclerosis. Weak associations were observed between previous ischemic stroke, transient ischemic attack, and aortic atherosclerosis, associations that were not significant after age- and gender-adjustment (p >0.2). Thus, coronary artery disease is strongly associated with aortic atherosclerosis and complex atherosclerosis in the general population. Cerebrovascular disease is weakly associated with aortic atherosclerosis, thereby questioning the overall importance of aortic atherosclerosis in the pathogenesis of cerebrovascular events in the general population.