Quality of life is often thought to be poor before and after intensive care unit admission. The aim of this study was to investigate changes in quality of life before and after intensive care. A prospective cohort study of 300 consecutive patients admitted to intensive care was performed in a Scottish Teaching Hospital. Quality of life was assessed premorbidly and 3, 6 and 12 months after intensive care admission for surviving patients using SF-36 as well as EQ-5D scores at 12 months. The median value for age was 60.5 years and for APACHE II score, 18. The mean length of stay was 6.7 days. SF-36 physical component scores decreased from premorbid values at 3 months (p = 0.05) and then returned to premorbid values at 12 months (p < 0.001). The mean physical scores were below the population norm at all time points but the mean mental scores were similar or higher than these population norms. Patients who died after intensive care discharge had lower quality of life scores than did survivors (all p < 0.01). Poor premorbid quality of life was demonstrated and appears to reduce after ICU discharge. For survivors there was a slow increase in physical quality of life to premorbid levels by the end of the first year but these remained lower than in the general population. ICU patients experience a considerable longer-term burden of ill health.