Alzheimer's disease (AD) is characterized by progressive dementia and distinct neuropathology at autopsy. In order to test the relationship between dementia severity and loss of brain volumes, we prospectively documented the neurological/medical health of 26 male and 26 female controls and AD cases, and evaluated a subset of controls and AD cases using the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE). At autopsy, Consortium to Establish a Registry for Alzheimer's Disease (CERAD) criteria confirmed diagnoses in 33 AD cases and 19 controls, and using unbiased stereology we quantified total volumes of cortical gray matter, subcortical grey matter including white matter, and forebrain. For ages of death between 50 to 100 years, controls showed minor cortical atrophy in the absence of cognitive decline. Cortical atrophy in AD cases was 20 to 25% greater than that in controls; AD patients dying at older ages showed less severe cortical atrophy than those dying at younger ages. Across all AD cases there was a strong correlation between cognitive performance on the Mini Mental State Examination and cortical volume loss. These findings confirm fundamental differences in the temporal patterns of cortical volume loss in aging and AD, and support cortical degeneration as the primary basis for cognitive decline in AD.