We assessed the short-term and long-term prognostic relationship between cholesterol and mortality in women of different ages with the aid of statistical graphics. Our population-based cohort study involved 2873 women in the Framingham Heart Study, with a median follow-up of 31 years. The primary outcome was all-cause mortality. Secondary outcome measures were coronary heart disease, noncoronary heart disease, and stroke mortality. We found that significant age interactions were present in the relationships between total cholesterol and mortality from all causes, coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, and non-CHD causes. For women ages < or = 55, cholesterol is related positively to both short-term (p > 0.05) and long-term (p = 0.05) all-cause mortality. For women ages 56-70, there are significant U-shaped relationships between cholesterol and both short-term and long-term all-cause mortality (p < 0.01). Lowest short-term and long-term mortality rates for women in this age group are at cholesterol values between 240 and 280 mg/dl. For women ages > 70, cholesterol < 240 mg/dl is associated with increased short-term mortality (p < 0.01), and no significant long-term association was detected. These cholesterol/mortality relationships and age interactions can be explained by patterns of association between mortality and both high- and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol among women in the different age groups. These results do not support the hypothesis that cholesterol < 200 mg/dl leads to decreased mortality in women > 55 years old.