Electrocardiographic abnormalities are often found in older patients, but their prevalence in free-living elderly populations is not well-defined. In addition, the clinical significance of many of these abnormalities is uncertain. The prevalence of major electrocardiographic abnormalities was determined in 5,150 adults aged greater than or equal to 65 years from the Cardiovascular Health Study--a study of risk factors for stroke and coronary heart disease in the elderly. Ventricular conduction defects, major Q/QS waves, left ventricular hypertrophy, isolated major ST-T-wave abnormalities, atrial fibrillation and first-degree atrioventricular block were collectively categorized as major electrocardiographic abnormalities. Prevalence of any major electrocardiographic abnormality was 29% in the entire cohort, 19% among 2,413 participants who reported no history of coronary artery disease or systemic hypertension, and 37% among 2,737 participants with a history of coronary artery disease or hypertension. Prevalence of major electrocardiographic abnormalities was higher in men than in women regardless of history, and tended to increase with age. Major Q/QS waves were found in 5.2%, and more than half were in those who did not report a previous myocardial infarction. Major electrocardiographic abnormalities are common in elderly men and women irrespective of the history of heart disease.