In this case-control family study of sleep-disordered breathing (SDB), we describe the distributions of SDB and SDB risk factors in African-Americans and Caucasians. A total of 225 African-Americans and 622 Caucasians, ages 2 to 86 yr, recruited as members of families with an individual with known sleep apnea (85 index families) or as members of neighborhood control families (63 families) were studied with an overnight home sleep-study, questionnaires, and physical measurements. A subsample underwent cephalometry. Outcome measures were the respiratory disturbance index (RDI) and a binary variable indicating the presence of increased apneic activity (IAA). In both races, a strong relationship was demonstrated between the (log transformed) RDI and age and age2. African-Americans with SDB were younger than Caucasians with SDB (37.2 +/- 19.5 versus 45.6 +/- 18.7 yr, p < 0.01). In subjects < or = 25 yr, RDI level and IAA prevalence were higher in African-Americans (odds ratio, adjusted for obesity, sex, proband sampling, and familial clustering, 1.88, 1.03 to 3.52, 95% CI). In this age group, racial differences also were observed in the relationship between RDI and age (p < 0.001 for the RDI-age interaction). This suggests that young African-Americans may be at increased risk for sleep apnea.