Acute intermittent porphyria (AIP) is a genetic disorder in which patients may have life threatening attacks of neurologic dysfunction. This study examined the prognosis during the past 50 years of patients in the United States who required hospitalization for porphyric attacks. The cumulative survival was determined for 136 patients with AIP who were hospitalized for porphyric attacks between 1940 and 1988. Diagnosis was established on the basis of clinical symptoms, in combination with increased urinary excretion of porphobilinogen. The patient group had an average age of 32 years (range 9 to 75) at diagnosis and consisted of 43 males and 93 females. At follow-up, 19 males (44%) and 31 females (33%) were decreased. The standardized mortality ratio for the 136 patients, compared to an age-matched hypothetical population experiencing USA 1970 Census Death Rates was 3.2, with a 95% confidence interval of 2.4-4.0. Most deaths occurred during the initial porphyric attack (20% of deaths) or a subsequent attack (38% of deaths). Suicide was also common (five deaths). Comparison was made between 50 patients who were diagnosed before 1971, the year in which hematin therapy became available, and 86 patients who were diagnosed afterward. There was improved survival in the latter group, particularly after 10 years from the time of diagnosis, but this did not reach statistical significance. In conclusion, the proportionate increase in mortality due to symptomatic AIP was three-fold compared to the general population during the past 50 years. The major cause of the increased mortality was the porphyric attack itself.