Mitochondrial diseases are characterized by considerable clinical variability and are most often caused by mutations in mtDNA. Because of the phenotypic variability, epidemiological studies of the frequency of these disorders have been difficult to perform. We studied the prevalence of the mtDNA mutation at nucleotide 3243 in an adult population of 245,201 individuals. This mutation is the most common molecular etiology of MELAS syndrome (mitochondrial encephalomyopathy, lactic acidosis, and strokelike episodes), one of the clinical entities among the mitochondrial disorders. Patients with diabetes mellitus, sensorineural hearing impairment, epilepsy, occipital brain infarct, ophthalmoplegia, cerebral white-matter disease, basal-ganglia calcifications, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or ataxia were ascertained on the basis of defined clinical criteria and family-history data. A total of 615 patients were identified, and 480 samples were examined for the mutation. The mutation was found in 11 pedigrees, and its frequency was calculated to be >=16. 3/100,000 in the adult population (95% confidence interval 11.3-21. 4/100,000). The mutation had arisen in the population at least nine times, as determined by mtDNA haplotyping. Clinical evaluation of the probands revealed a syndrome that most frequently consisted of hearing impairment, cognitive decline, and short stature. The high prevalence of the common MELAS mutation in the adult population suggests that mitochondrial disorders constitute one of the largest diagnostic categories of neurogenetic diseases.