We performed a community-based study to investigate the relationship of genetic susceptibility and head injury to Alzheimer's disease (AD) in 138 patients with AD and 193 healthy elderly control subjects. Data concerning presence or absence of dementia and certain exposures were also obtained from 799 first-degree relatives of the patients and 1,238 first-degree relatives of the control subjects. Adjusting for age, gender, and other risk factors, the odds ratio for AD associated with head injury was 3.7 (95% confidence interval [CI], 1.4-9.7). The association was highest for head injuries that occurred after age 70. The risk of AD was higher in first-degree relatives of patients with onset prior to age 70 than in relatives of control subjects (risk ratio [RR] = 2.5; 95% CI, 1.1-5.6). The risk was not increased for relatives of patients with onset of AD at age 70 or older. Compared with relatives without head injury, the risk of AD was increased among both head-injured relatives of patients (RR = 5.9; 95% CI, 2.3-14.8) and head-injured relatives of control subjects (RR = 6.9; 95% CI, 2.5-18.9). Our results are consistent with the hypothesis that severe head injury and genetic susceptibility are associated with AD. Both associations concur with current concepts regarding the role of amyloid in AD. Although we regard head injury, like genetic susceptibility, to be a putative risk factor for AD, the temporal relationship between head injury and AD warrants further investigation.