To relate cardiac autonomic function measured by heart rate variability (HRV) with prevalent and incident hypertension at the population level, the authors examined a stratified random sample of 2,061 examinees from the biracial Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) cohort. Baseline, supine, resting beat-to-beat heart rate data were collected. High frequency (HF, 0.15 to 0.35 Hz), low frequency (LF, 0.025 to 0.15 Hz) spectral powers, and LF/HF ratio, estimated from spectral analysis, and standard deviation of all normal RR intervals (SDNN), calculated from time domain analysis, were used as the conventional indices of cardiac autonomic function. From this sample, 650 prevalent hypertensives were identified. Of those normotensive at baseline (n = 1,338), 64 participants developed hypertension during 3 years of follow-up. In the cross-sectional analysis, the adjusted geometric means of HF were 1.26, 1.20, and 1.00 (beat/min)2 for normotensives, untreated hypertensives, and treated hypertensives, respectively; means of LF were 3.24, 3.26, and 2.58; means of LF/HF ratio were 2.57, 2.70, and 2.56; and means of SDNN were 39, 34, and 35 (ms) respectively. In the prospective analysis, a statistically significant, graded inverse association between baseline HF and the risk of incident hypertension was observed: the adjusted incident odds ratios (95% CI) were 1.00, 1.46 (0.61, 3.46), 1.50 (0.65, 3.50) and 2.44 (1.15, 5.20) from the highest to the lowest quartile of HF. No clear pattern of association was observed for LF. Significant trends of association for LF/HF and SDNN and incident hypertension were also found. These results suggest that cardiac autonomic function is associated with prevalent hypertension, and that reduced vagal function and the imbalance of sympatho-vagal function are associated with the risk of developing hypertension.