The risk of premature coronary artery disease (CAD) and its determinants were investigated in a cohort of 292 patients with juvenile-onset, insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) who were followed for 20 to 40 years. Although patients with juvenile-onset IDDM had an extremely high risk of premature CAD, the earliest deaths due to CAD did not occur until late in the third decade of life. After age 30 years, the mortality rate due to CAD increased rapidly, equally in men and women, and particularly among persons with renal complications. By age 55 years the cumulative mortality rate due to CAD was 35 +/- 5%. This was far higher than the corresponding rate for nondiabetic persons in the Framingham Heart Study, 8% for men and 4% for women. Angina and acute nonfatal myocardial infarction followed a similar pattern, as did asymptomatic CAD detected by stress test, so that their combined prevalence rate was 33% among survivors aged 45 to 59 years. Age at onset of IDDM and the presence of eye complications did not contribute to risk of premature CAD. This pattern suggests that juvenile-onset diabetes and its renal complications are modifiers of the natural history of atherosclerosis in that although they profoundly accelerate progression of early atherosclerotic lesions to very severe CAD, they may not contribute to initiation of atherosclerosis.