MR imaging of the brain, performed in 86 normal subjects and 113 patients with objective memory disorder or dementia, demonstrated white- and gray-matter areas of high signal intensity on long TR images (short and long TE). Hyperintensities were analyzed with respect to size (on a scale of 0-3) and location: lesions were periventricular, subcortical, or cortical. The patients with memory disorder and dementia were categorized as having probable/possible Alzheimer disease, a combination of Alzheimer disease and multiinfarct cognitive disorder, or multiinfarct cognitive disorder alone on the basis of clinically determined Hachinski ischemic scores. Significant correlations were found between age and scores for periventricular lesions (r = .40, p less than .0005) and subcortical lesions (r = .39, p less than .0005) in normal subjects. Correlations were also found between the Hachinski ischemic score and scores for periventricular lesions (r = .21, p less than .01), subcortical lesions (r = .27, p less than .0002), and cortical lesions (r = .32, p less than .0005) in subjects with memory disorder/dementia. Comparing multiinfarct cognitive disorder, Alzheimer disease, and normal groups, the mean scores for periventricular lesions were 12.0 +/- 4.6, 7.6 +/- 4.8, and 3.4 +/- 2.6, while mean scores for subcortical lesions were 10.8 +/- 12.2, 4.1 +/- 6.4, and 0.8 +/- 1.2, respectively. Periventricular lesions were present in 99-100% of patients with Alzheimer disease and multiinfarct cognitive disorder. On the other hand, subcortical lesions, which were identified in 100% of patients with multiinfarct cognitive disorder, were present in only about half of the patients with Alzheimer disease. Thus, scores for both periventricular and subcortical lesions are positively correlated with age and risk factors for cerebrovascular disease and also are significantly increased in the presence of objective memory disorder or dementia. These results imply that in the subject groups considered here, elderly patients with vascular dementia are most likely to have severe white-matter abnormalities on MR scans. The score for subcortical lesions appears to be more helpful than the score for periventricular lesions in distinguishing vascular dementia from Alzheimer disease and normal aging, so that a patient with prominent subcortical white-matter abnormalities is more likely to have a diagnosis of vascular than degenerative dementia.