OBJECTIVE: To explore the hypothesis that older adults often are affected by more than one disease, making the differential diagnosis between Alzheimer's disease (AD) and vascular dementia (VaD) difficult. METHODS: Incident dementia cases (n = 308) from a population-based longitudinal study of people 75+ years were investigated. The DSM-III-R criteria were used for the clinical diagnosis of dementia. Data on vascular disorders (hypertension, cerebrovascular and ischemic heart diseases, heart failure, atrial fibrillation, diabetes) as well as type of onset/course of dementia were used retrospectively to reclassify dementias. RESULTS: Only 47% of the AD cases were reclassified as pure AD without any vascular disorder. Among subjects with AD and with a vascular component, cerebrovascular disease was the most common (41%). Only 25% of VaD were reclassified as pure VaD. Further, 26% of the pure AD subjects developed a vascular disorder in the following 3 years. CONCLUSIONS: Both vascular and degenerative mechanisms may often contribute to the expression of dementia among the elderly. Most of the AD cases have vascular involvements, and pure dementia types in very old subjects constitute only a minority of dementia cases.