The role played by vessel disease in stroke-related cognition dysfunction is unclear. We assessed the impact of significant atherosclerotic disease on cognition - even in patients asymptomatic for stroke. We hypothesized that patients would perform poorly relative to controls, but that symptomatic/asymptomatic status (history of stroke/transient ischemic attack) would have no effect. Fifty-two carotid endarterectomy candidates with >60% carotid stenosis and 17 controls underwent a 60-min neuropsychological test protocol. Symptomatic and asymptomatic patients showed deficits in executive function, delayed verbal recall, and general knowledge. Patients symptomatic for stroke also performed worse on tests of language and motor/visuomotor ability. Symptomatic and asymptomatic patients differed in working memory and language task performance. Although all patients showed deficits in executive function and memory, only symptomatic patients showed additional deficits in language and motor function. Cognitive abnormalities in patients viewed as "asymptomatic" for stroke underscore the need for early identification and treatment.