The relation between coronary heart disease (CHD) prevalence and fasting lipid levels was assessed by a case-control study in five populations with a total of 6859 men and women of black, Japanese and white ancestry drawn from subjects aged 40 years and older from populations in Albany, Framingham, Evans County, Honolulu and San Francisco. In each major study group mean levels of high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol were lower in persons with CHD than in those without the disease. The average difference was small -- typically 3-4 mg/dl -- but statistically significant. It was found in most age-race-sex specific groups. The inverse HDL cholesterol-CHD association was not appreciably diminished when adjusted for levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and triglyceride. LDL, totoal cholesterol and triglycerides were directly related to CHD prevalence; surprisingly, these findings were less uniformly present in the various study groups than the inverse HDL cholesterol-CHD association.