Despite the frequent occurrence of gastroesophageal reflux disease, until now only very few studies have dealt with the epidemiology of this common disorder. The Health Care Financing Administration complies annually 10 million records of all hospital discharges among Medicare beneficiaries distributed throughout the United States. The purpose of the present study was to take advantage of this large data set and analyze the demographic characteristics of patients discharged with esophagitis, esophageal ulcer, or esophageal stricture. The hospital discharge rates of all three diagnoses showed an age-related rise, the rise being most pronounced for esophageal stricture and, less significant, esophageal ulcer. The marked age dependency of esophageal stricture and ulcer may reflect the time necessary for complications to develop. While simple esophagitis affected women more frequently than men, significantly more men contracted its severe forms involving ulcers and strictures. All forms were more common in whites than blacks, and living in the southern parts of the United States was associated with an increased risk for esophagitis and strictures. The data suggest that besides varying exposure to environmental risk factors, differences in the pathophysiology among demographically stratified groups contribute to the occurrence of esophagitis.