We undertook clinical and ultrasonographic examination of the shoulders of 420 asymptomatic volunteers aged between 50 and 79 years. MRI was performed in selected cases. Full-thickness tears of the rotator cuff were detected in 32 subjects (7.6%). The prevalence increased with age as follows: 50 to 59 years, 2.1%; 60 to 69 years, 5.7%; and 70 to 79 years, 15%. The mean size of the tear was less than 3 cm and tear localisation was limited to the supraspinatus tendon in most cases (78%). The strength of flexion was reduced significantly in the group with tears (p = 0.01). Asymptomatic tears of the rotator cuff should be regarded as part of the normal ageing process in the elderly but may be less common than hitherto believed.