Cardiac autonomic activity, as assessed by heart rate variability, has been found to be associated with postmyocardial infarction mortality, sudden death, and all-cause mortality. However, the association of heart rate variability and the incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD) is not well described. The authors report on the association of baseline cardiac autonomic activity (1987-1989) with incident CHD after 3 years (1990-1992) of follow-up of the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study cohort selected from four study centers in the United States by using a case-cohort design. The authors examined 137 incident cases of CHD and a stratified random sample of 2,252 examinees free of CHD at baseline. Baseline, supine, resting beat-to-beat heart rate data were collected. High- (0.16-0.35 Hz) and low- (0.025-0.15 Hz) frequency spectral powers and high-/low-frequency power ratio, estimated from spectral analysis, and standard deviation of all normal R-R intervals, calculated from time domain analysis, were used as the conventional indices of cardiac parasympathetic, sympatho-parasympathetic, and their balance, respectively. Incident CHD was defined as hospitalized myocardial infarction, fatal CHD, or cardiac revascularization procedures during 3 years of follow-up. The age, race, gender, and other CHD risk factor-adjusted relative risks (and 95% confidence intervals) of incident CHD comparing the lowest quartile with the upper three quartiles of high-frequency power, low-frequency power, high-/low-frequency power ratio, and standard deviation of R-R intervals were 1.72 (95% confidence interval (CI) 1.17-2.51), 1.09 (95% CI 0.72-1.64), 1.25 (95% CI 0.84-1.86), and 1.39 (95% CI 0.94-2.04), respectively. The findings from this population-based, prospective study suggest that altered cardiac autonomic activity, especially lower parasympathetic activity, is associated with the risk of developing CHD.