Predictive indexes for atherosclerotic risk are imperfect, suggesting that there are predictive factors not commonly considered. Such a factor may be the white blood cell (WBC) count. Epidemiologic studies have shown correlations between the WBC count and the risk of myocardial infarction and stroke. The risk of acute myocardial infarction is approximately four times as great in persons with WBC counts high in the normal range (greater than 9000/microL [9 X 10(9)/L]) as in persons with WBC counts low in the normal range (less than 6000/microL [6 X 10(9)/L]); only 50% to 65% of the excess risk of the high-count individuals is explainable by tobacco smoking (which covaries with WBC count). A high WBC count also predicts greater risk of reinfarction and of in-hospital death. Less rigorously studied, the constitutional neutropenia of Yemenite Jews appears to afford protection against atherosclerotic disease. Among WBC types, the strongest epidemiologic association has been with the neutrophil count. Such a predictive value of WBC count is plausible and satisfying, because WBCs make a major contribution to the rheologic properties of blood; alter adhesive properties under stress--including the stress of ischemia, enhancing their rheologic importance; and participate in endothelial injury, both acutely and chronically, by adhering to endothelium and damaging it with toxic oxygen compounds and proteolytic enzymes. Techniques newly developed or under development may allow us to refine the predictive value of the WBC count by combining it with measures of cell activation and/or activatability.