Age-specific and cumulative incidence rates were calculated for entry into Australian end-stage renal failure programmes from 1972 to 1991, as a result of all causes, or from analgesic nephropathy, glomerulonephritis, hypertension and vascular disease, or diabetes. Three different trends were demonstrated. A rising recorded incidence of renal failure occurred throughout the period of observation in those aged 0-4 years (all causes) and in those aged 55 years and over (all categories, least in analgesic nephropathy) principally attributable to a falling fraction of patients not accepted for treatment. Falling incidence rates indicating a real reduction in the burden of disease were seen for analgesic nephropathy (at least up to the age of 64 years) and hypertension and vascular disease (only up to the age of 54 years). In young adults the unchanging incidence of renal failure due to all causes, glomerulonephritis and diabetes probably reflect nearly complete acceptance rates into end-stage renal failure programmes, and therefore approximate the true burden of disease. In end-stage renal failure, age-specific or age-standardized cumulative rates are required to distinguish rising or falling incidence of disease from trends due to changing medical practice.