There are virtually no data available describing the functional status of diabetic individuals. We therefore measured functional status using the Sickness Impact Profile (SIP) in 393 diabetic subjects and 486 nondiabetic control subjects identified from the San Antonio Heart Study, a population-based study of diabetes among Mexican Americans and non-Hispanic whites. The SIP is a validated instrument that assesses the presence of health-related behavior changes and activity restrictions in 12 different categories. Functional impairment, defined as a SIP score of 2.0% or greater, was present among 36.6% of diabetic subjects. Following adjustments for age, Mexican Americans were 1.63 times more likely to experience functional impairment that non-Hispanic whites, although this difference was not statistically significant (95% confidence interval: 0.92-2.89). The categories in which subjects experienced impairment varied widely, but the category with the highest prevalence of impairment was "eating" (greater than 40%). The prevalence of functional impairment was 45.9% among diabetic subjects with vascular complications, 31.8% among diabetic subjects without complications, and 16.7% among nondiabetic control subjects. Among all diabetic subjects impairment increased with age, duration of diabetes, fasting glucose, and BMI, and with insulin use and the presence of hypertension. In a multiple logistic regression model these factors (with the exception of insulin use) remained associated with the presence of functional impairment even after adjustment for the presence of vascular complications. If the factors responsible for this excess of functional impairment can be identified, an intervention might be designed which can lead to improvement in the quality of life for diabetic individuals.