A causative role is now accepted for Helicobacter (formerly Campylobacter) pylori in type B gastritis, and evidence is accumulating that H. pylori infection plays a major contributory role in peptic ulcer disease. Preliminary studies have reported that the prevalence of H. pylori infection increases with age, but detailed information on the prevalence of the bacteria in any defined population and on the factors that may influence the pattern of distribution remains scanty. In the present study, a sensitive enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and a [13C] urea breath test were used to investigate the prevalence of H. pylori infection among 485 healthy asymptomatic volunteers between the ages of 15 and 80 residing in the Houston metropolitan area. H. pylori infection was present in 52%. The prevalence of H. pylori infection increased rapidly with age at 1%/yr for the overall population. The frequency of H. pylori infection was higher in blacks (70%) than whites (34%) (P less than 0.001); this difference remained after adjustments were made for age, gender, educational level, income, and use of tobacco or alcohol. H. pylori infection was independent of gender but was closely correlated with socioeconomic class. There were significant inverse correlations between age-adjusted frequency of H. pylori infection and income and between educational level and H. pylori infection. There was no association between H. pylori infection and consumption of alcohol or nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drug use or smoking. Having pets was associated with a lower frequency of H. pylori infection, but this was highly associated with higher socioeconomic status. The mode(s) of transmission of H. pylori is unknown, but the social patterns of H. pylori infection are consistent with fecal-oral transmission as one important pathway. Socioeconomic factors seem to determine the age of acquisition.