Cerebrospinal fluid and positron emission tomography biomarkers accurately predict an underlying Alzheimer's disease (AD) pathology; however, they represent either invasive or expensive diagnostic tools. Therefore, a blood-based biomarker like plasma amyloid beta (Aβ) that could correlate with the underlying AD pathology and serve as a prognostic biomarker or an AD screening strategy is urgently needed as a cost-effective and non-invasive diagnostic tool. In this paper we review the demographic, biologic, genetic and technical aspects that affect plasma Aβ levels. Findings of cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of plasma Aβ, including autosomal dominant AD cases, sporadic AD cases, Down syndrome cases and population studies, are also discussed. Finally, we review the association between cerebrovascular disease and Aβ plasma levels and the responses observed in clinical trials. Based on our review of the current literature on plasma Aβ, we conclude that further clinical research and assay development are needed before measures of plasma Aβ can be interpreted so they can be applied as trait, risk or state biomarkers for AD.