Compensatory arterial enlargement in response to atherosclerosis has been demonstrated for the left main coronary artery. Only limited data is available on the interaction of patient characteristics and atherosclerosis with coronary artery dimensions. The purpose of the present study was to evaluate the influence of age, race, body habitus, heart weight and atherosclerosis on coronary artery dimensions of young males. Hearts from 137 young men (age 32 +/- 8 years; 78 black, 59 white) with unnatural deaths (homicide, suicide, accident, drug overdose) were perfusion-fixed, and histologic sections were obtained from the left main, proximal left anterior descending and left circumflex coronary arteries. Computerized planimetry was performed on Movat stained sections. Multiple regression analysis was used to evaluate the relative contribution of plaque size, age, race, heart weight and body surface area on coronary dimensions and compensatory enlargement in response to atherosclerosis. In the left anterior descending and left main coronary arteries, black race, body surface area and age were independent predictors of increased lumen area. In the left circumflex, age was a predictor of lumen area. Plaque area, black race and body surface area independently predicted increased area enclosed by the internal elastic lamina area. There was compensatory enlargement of internal elastic lamina with increasing plaque size in both races in the three arteries, but the percent luminal stenosis was greater in whites due to smaller artery size. Luminal narrowing did not develop until plaques occupied 30% of internal elastic lamina area. Among a population of young men with non-cardiac deaths, blacks have larger lumen and area enclosed by internal elastic lamina than whites. Age and body surface area are major determinants of lumen areas, and compensatory arterial enlargement was seen in all examined arteries in the present study.