Genetic factors are likely to affect human survival, since twin studies have shown greater concordance for age of death in monozygotic compared to dizygotic twins. Coronary artery disease is an important contributor to premature mortality in the UK. Accordingly, we have chosen genes associated with cardiovascular risk, apo E/apo C-I, angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) and methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR), as candidates which may affect longevity/survival into old age. An association study was performed by comparing allele and genotype frequencies at polymorphic loci associated with these genes in 182 women and 100 men aged 84 years and older with 100 boys and 100 girls younger than 17 years. MTHFR allele and genotype frequencies were similar in the elderly and young populations. Apo C-I allele and genotype frequencies were significantly different in the elderly women compared to the younger sample (P < 0.05). No difference was observed in the elderly men. At the neighbouring apo E gene, we only observed a difference between genotypes in the elderly women and the young sample; however, this did not retain significance when the genotype frequencies of the young sample were adjusted to values expected from the allele frequencies on the basis of Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium and compared to observed genotypes in elderly men and women. In contrast to previous studies, apo E2 was not overrepresented in the elderly men or women. Thus, the proposition that apo E2, E3 and E4 protein isoforms are themselves functionally associated with increasing risks for early death, may be too simplistic. The I/I ACE was depleted in the elderly males but not the elderly females. Furthermore, significant differences were observed between ACE genotypes in elderly men and elderly women. These data suggest that the penetrance of loci which influence survival may vary according to sex. The depletion of the ACE I/I genotype in elderly men is generally consistent with a previous study which found decreased frequencies of the I allele in French centenarians compared to younger controls. However, these results are apparently paradoxical, since others have suggested that the I allele is associated with increased cardiovascular risk. Clarification of the overall effect of a genotype on survival will be vital if therapies are to be considered which target specific genetic variants.