We studied the relation between serum total and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and 10-year coronary heart disease mortality in elderly men in different European countries. The Finland, Italy and the Netherlands Elderly (FINE) Study is a prospective follow-up study in 2,132 elderly men ages 65-84 years in Finland, the Netherlands, and Italy. We estimated relative risks using Cox proportional hazard analysis with time-dependent covariates. Total cholesterol was positively related to coronary heart disease mortality in all three countries. The combined relative risk for the total population of the FINE Study was 1.17 (95% confidence interval = 1.06-1.29) for each 1.00 mmol/liter increase in total cholesterol. HDL cholesterol was inversely related to coronary heart disease mortality in Finland, but not in the Netherlands and Italy. In Italy we noted an interaction among HDL cholesterol, body mass index, and alcohol intake, with an inverse association for HDL cholesterol in lean men who drank or =40 gm of alcohol per day. Serum total cholesterol remains an important predictor of coronary heart disease mortality in elderly men in different European countries. The effect of HDL cholesterol differed among the three countries.