As the availability and quality of imaging techniques improve, doctors are identifying more patients with no history of transient ischaemic attack or stroke in whom imaging shows brain infarcts. Until recently, little was known about the relevance of these lesions. In this systematic review, we give an overview of the frequency, causes, and consequences of MRI-defined silent brain infarcts, which are detected in 20% of healthy elderly people and up to 50% of patients in selected series. Most infarcts are lacunes, of which hypertensive small-vessel disease is thought to be the main cause. Although silent infarcts, by definition, lack clinically overt stroke-like symptoms, they are associated with subtle deficits in physical and cognitive function that commonly go unnoticed. Moreover, the presence of silent infarcts more than doubles the risk of subsequent stroke and dementia. Future studies will have to show whether screening and treating high-risk patients can effectively reduce the risk of further infarcts, stroke, and dementia.