Men with non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) have a twofold increased risk of coronary heart disease and women with NIDDM have a fourfold increased risk. The reasons for this higher relative risk in NIDDM women than in NIDDM men is not completely understood. Since some studies suggest that duration of clinical diabetes and degree of hyperglycaemia have only a modest effect on coronary heart disease risk, we hypothesized that women who eventually convert to NIDDM might have a more atherogenic pattern of lipids and blood pressure relative to subjects who do not convert than male converters, even in the prediabetic period. We examined this issue in Mexican-American subjects in the 8-year follow-up of the San Antonio Heart Study. Seventy-nine out of 801 men converted to NIDDM compared to 133 out of 1131 women. In both men and women, conversion to NIDDM was significantly associated with increased body mass index, fasting insulin and glucose, higher triglyceride and blood pressure and lower high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. The relative differences between converters and non-converters was significantly greater for women than for men; this interaction term for gender by conversion status was statistically significant for fasting insulin, triglyceride, HDL cholesterol and diastolic blood pressure. Thus, the higher relative risk for coronary heart disease in women with NIDDM relative to men with NIDDM may be partially due to their greater burden of cardiovascular risk factors even prior to the onset of diabetes.