To assess the risk and prognostic factors of community-acquired pneumonia occurring in the elderly (over age 65 yr) requiring hospitalization, two studies, case-control and cohort, were performed over an 8-mo period in a 1,000-bed university teaching hospital. We studied 101 patients with pneumonia (cases), age 78.5 +/- 7.9 yr (mean +/- SD). Each case was matched for sex, age (+/- 5 yr), and date of admission (+/- 2 d) with a control subject, without pneumonia during the preceding 3 yr, arriving at the emergency room. Etiologic diagnosis was obtained in 43 of 101 (42%) cases. The main microbial agents causing pneumonia were: Streptococcus pneumoniae (19 of 43, 44%), and Chlamydia pneumoniae (9 of 43, 21%). Gram-negative bacilli were uncommon (2 of 43, 5%). The multivariate analysis demonstrated that large-volume aspiration, and low serum albumin (< 30 mg/dl) were independent risk factors associated with the development of pneumonia. Crude mortality rate was 26% (26 of 101), while pneumonia-related mortality was 20% (20 of 101). The attributable mortality was 23% (odds ratio [OR]: 11.3; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 3.25 to 60.23; p < 0.0001). The multivariate analysis showed that patients had a worse prognosis if they were previously bedridden, had prior swallowing disorders, body temperature on admission was less than 37 degrees C, respiratory frequency was greater than 30/min or had three or more affected lobes on chest radiograph. Age by itself was not a significant factor related to prognosis. Among the significant risk factors, only nutritional status is probably amenable to medical intervention. The prognostic factors found in this study may help to identify, upon admission, those subjects at higher risk and who may require special observation.