This study examined the clinical usefulness of magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) performed using an automated single voxel technique at 1.0 T field strength in a district general hospital magnetic resonance (MR) scanner in the assessment of older people referred to a memory clinic with suspected dementia. Of 50 elderly subjects (M:F 20:30) examined and followed-up clinically over more than 2 years, 20 had clinical Alzheimer's disease (AD), 18 had clinical vascular dementia, six had mixed features and three were normal. Three normal volunteers were also studied. MRS was performed at the same time as structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), added <15 min to the examination and was well-tolerated in all patients studied. Patients with AD had significantly higher myoinositol/creatine (MI/Cr) ratios (mean +/- S.D.: 0.82 +/- 0.04) compared to those with vascular dementia (mean +/-S. D.: 0.71 +/- 0.07, P<0.00001) and normal subjects (mean +/- S.D.: 0.72 +/- 0.036, P<0.0002); there was little overlap between the AD and vascular groups. The mixed dementia group also had significantly higher MI/Cr ratios (mean +/- S.D.: 0.80 +/- 0.05) than vascular dementia (P<0.01) and normal (P<0.03) groups, but with considerable overlap. No significant differences were shown for N-acetyl aspartate or choline/creatine ratios between the different clinical groups. These data suggest that MI/Cr ratios can distinguish patients with AD from normal subjects and those with sub-cortical ischemic vascular dementia and that MRS will be useful to clinicians managing persons with AD in a district general hospital setting.