This article reviews the nature of the effects of hypertension, smoking and cholesterol on the incidence of cardiovascular disease and emphasizes how these effects vary by age. In the Methods section, we discuss briefly the concepts of additive and multiplicative statistical models as tools for summarizing data. In the results section, we summarize available data on the association between incident stroke and coronary heart disease in the elderly and each of these major risk factors. The traditional multiplicative model parsimoniously characterizes the individual and joint effects of age and high blood pressure in terms of risk ratios; but, for smoking and cholesterol, an additive model appears to be the most parsimonious. We discuss the consequences of these observations for the study and prevention of cardiovascular disease in the elderly.