Mixed population studies suggest a relationship between deep and subcortical white matter hyperintensities on magnetic resonance imaging and cerebrovascular disease. To further clarify this issue we compared the prevalence and extent of such signal abnormalities between a group of 133 consecutive stroke patients (mean age, 54.7 +/- 16.7 years) and 101 normal volunteers (mean age, 54.7 +/- 13.1 years). Diabetes and cardiac disease were significantly more common in patients than in normal subjects. Prevalence rates of clinically silent lesions were 44% and 47.5%, respectively. Beginning confluent and confluent foci were seen in 19.5% of patients, but in only 7.5% of normal subjects. Significant univariate correlations were found for the presence and extent of lesions with age, diabetes, cardiac disease, severity of extracranial carotid arteriosclerosis, and arterial hypertension, but not with the diagnosis of stroke or the type of brain infarction. Multivariate regression analysis established age and diabetes mellitus as the only independent predictors of white matter damage. We conclude that more extensive white matter abnormalities in stroke patients stem from their higher rate of cerebrovascular risk factors but are unrelated to the occurrence of ischemic attacks per se.