The objective of this study is to determine the range of complex physical and cognitive abilities of older men and women functioning at high, medium and impaired ranges and to determine the psychosocial and physiological conditions that discriminate those in the high functioning group from those functioning at middle or impaired ranges. The subjects for this study were drawn from men and women aged 70-79 from 3 Established Populations for the Epidemiologic Study of the Elderly (EPESE) programs in East Boston MA, New Haven CT, and Durham County NC screened on the basis of criteria of physical and cognitive function. In 1988, 4030 men and women were screened as part of their annual EPESE interview. 1192 men and women met criteria for "high functioning". Age and sex-matched subjects were selected to represent the medium (n = 80) and low (n = 82) functioning groups. Physical and cognitive functioning was assessed from performance-based examinations and self-reported abilities. Physical function measures focused on balance, gait, and upper body strength. Cognitive exams assessed memory, language, abstraction, and praxis. Significant differences for every performance-based examination of physical and cognitive function were observed across functioning groups. Low functioning subjects were almost 3 times as likely to have an income of < or = $5000 compared to the high functioning group. They were less likely to have completed high school. High functioning subjects smoked cigarettes less and exercised more than others. They had higher levels of DHEA-S and peak expiratory flow rate. High functioning elders were more likely to engage in volunteer activities and score higher on scales of self-efficacy, mastery and report fewer psychiatric symptoms.