Major depression has been associated with mortality from ischemic heart disease (IHD). In addition, a symptom of depression--hopelessness--has been suggested as a determinant of health status. We studied the relation of both depressed affect and hopelessness to IHD incidence using data from a cohort of 2,832 U.S. adults age 45-77 years who participated in the National Health Examination Follow-up Study (mean follow-up = 12.4 years) and had no history of IHD or serious illness at baseline. We used the depression subscale of the General Well-Being Schedule to define depressed affect and a single item from the scale to define hopelessness. At baseline, 11.1% of the cohort had depressed affect; 10.8% reported moderate hopelessness, and 2.9% reported severe hopelessness. Depressed affect and hopelessness were more common among women, blacks, and persons who were less educated, unmarried, smokers, or physically inactive. There were 189 cases of fatal IHD during the follow-up period. After we adjusted for demographic and risk factors, depressed affect was related to fatal IHD [relative risk = 1.5; 95% confidence interval (CI) = 1.0-2.3]; the relative risks of fatal IHD for moderate and severe levels of hopelessness were 1.6 (95% CI = 1.0-2.5) and 2.1 (95% CI = 1.1-3.9), respectively. Depressed affect and hopelessness were also associated with an increased risk of nonfatal IHD. These data indicate that depressed affect and hopelessness may play a causal role in the occurrence of both fatal and nonfatal IHD.