A systematic review of the neurologic literature identified 433 cases of pathologically proven multiple system atrophy over a 100-year period. Earlier case reports included patients younger in age with more frequent cerebellar involvement. Mean age of onset was 54.2 years (range 31 to 78) and survival was 6.2 years (range 0.5 to 24). Survival analysis showed a secular trend from a median duration of 4.9 years for publications between 1887 and 1970 to 6.8 years between 1991 and 1994. Older age of onset was associated with shorter survival; the hazard ratio for patients with onset after 60 years was 1.8 (95% CI 1.4 to 2.3) compared with patients between 31 and 49 years. Cerebellar features were associated with marginally increased survival (6.1 years versus 5.4 years; p = 0.04). There were no difference in survival according to gender, parkinsonian, or pyramidal features or whether the patient was classified as striatonigral degeneration or olivopontocerebellar atrophy type. These results demonstrate the poor prognosis for patients with multiple system atrophy but may be biased toward the worst cases. Future research needs to recruit more representative samples.