Ascertainment of the vital status of individuals is of central importance to epidemiologic studies which monitor mortality as an end point. Utilizing identifying information collected in 1973-1974, the Hypertension Detection and Follow-up Program, a prospective, multicenter study, followed 25,362 individuals to determine eight-year mortality. In the most recent follow-up, there were 617 individuals whose vital status was not known. Available identifying information on these and on all 1,322 participants known to have died in 1979-1981 was submitted to the National Death Index (NDI) for possible confirmation of vital status. A subset of individuals who had Social Security numbers (490 lost to follow-up and 1,154 known deaths) was also submitted to the Social Security Administration (SSA). The NDI correctly identified 87.0% of the known deaths. Of the 1,154 known deaths (those with known Social Security numbers) submitted to both agencies, the NDI identified 93.1% and the SSA 83.6%. Significant variations by race and sex were noted in the identification rates, in part because of Social Security number discrepancies. False matches through the NDI matching process occurred for 10.4% of the known deaths. In the more restrictive SSA search, only 0.5% false matches resulted. For those lost to follow-up, vital status was ascertained in 57.1%. This paper describes the relative efficacy and attributes of the use of these systems to ascertain vital status.