Vascular access failure causes substantial morbidity to hemodialysis patients. We sought to identify factors determining survival of the permanent vascular access in use at the start of end-stage renal disease during 1990 in a national sample of 784 incident hemodialysis patients insured by Medicare. Medicare claims records were used to identify access failures or revisions among patients with an arteriovenous (AV) fistula (n = 245) and an AV vascular graft (n = 539). A proportional hazards analysis of time to first failure or revision, controlled by stratification for sex, race, and cause of end-stage renal disease, was used to determine the effect of age, access type, and peripheral vascular disease on vascular access survival. Patients with an AV fistula and who were older than 65 years had a risk of access failure that was 24% lower than similar patients with an AV graft (P < 0.02). The relative risk of access failure for an AV fistula, but not an AV graft, varied significantly with age for patients younger than 65 years (P < 0.01). The relative risk of access failure for a patient with an AV fistula, compared with a patient of the same age with an AV graft, was 67% lower at the age of 40 years, 54% lower at the age of 50 years, and 24% lower at the age of 65 years. A history of peripheral vascular disease was associated with a 24% higher risk of AV graft or fistula failure (P = 0.05). Measures to decrease vascular access-related morbidity among hemodialysis patients should include reversing the current trend toward increasing use of AV grafts, particularly in patients younger than 65 years.