The results of genome-wide association studies have revealed that most human complex diseases (for example, cancer, diabetes and psychiatric disorders) are affected by a large number of variants, each of which explains a small increase in disease risk, suggesting a pattern of polygenic inheritance. At the same time, it has been argued that most complex diseases are genetically heterogeneous because many sporadic cases are observed, as well as cases with a family history. In this study, under the assumption of polygenic inheritance, we derive the expected proportion of sporadic cases using analytical methods and simulation. We show how the proportion of sporadic cases depends on disease prevalence (K) and heritability on the underlying liability scale (h(L)(2)). We predict the underlying heritability and the proportion of sporadic cases for a range of human complex diseases, and show that this proportion is typically large. For a disease with h(L)(2)=63% and K=0.4%, such as schizophrenia, >83% of proband cases are predicted to be sporadic (no affected first-, second- and third-degree relatives) in typical families (on an average, two children per couple). For the majority of these diseases, a large proportion of sporadic cases is expected under the polygenic model, implying that the observed large proportion of sporadic cases is not informative to the causal mechanism of a complex genetic disease.