The causes of death for the elderly were prospectively studied in Hisayama, Japan, a rural community. We compared 1,621 subjects, aged 40 years or over, recruited in 1961, and 2,053 subjects recruited in 1974. Each cohort was studied in a follow-up that lasted 10 years; they had autopsy rates of 82.1% and 86.1% during each 10-year period, respectively. The most common causes of death for those aged 70 years or over were cerebrovascular disease, malignant neoplasms, and pneumonia. Deaths due to cerebrovascular disease tended to decrease in the recent cohort, but the proportion of decline was more prominent in cases aged 40 to 69 years. There was a sex difference in the changing pattern of mortality from heart diseases including ischemic heart disease. Deaths by both heart diseases and ischemic heart disease increased in the more recent cohort of aged women, whereas they decreased in the aged men. Pneumonia was an important cause of death for the elderly in both cohorts. Deaths due to "senility" were rare, being only 1% of the deceased aged 70 or over. With prolonged lifespan, especially for women, the impact of atherosclerosis and its related disorders on the recent Japanese aged population appears to have increased.