© 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. Introduction: Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a disease distributed worldwide, which occurs in both genders, and across racial/ethnic and age groups; however, higher rates are observed in adults, in women and in non-Caucasians. Genetic, environmental, sociodemographic and methodological issues are responsible not only for these differences but for the variable course and outcome of the disease. Non-Caucasians have a more severe disease with a higher risk for early mortality and damage accrual. Males also have a more severe disease; however, a negative impact of male gender on lupus outcomes has not been firmly established. Childhood-onset is associated with a more severe disease; moreover, it is also associated with higher damage and diminished survival; finally, late-onset lupus is mild but it is associated with higher damage accrual and a diminished survival. Areas covered: In this review, we discuss the incidence and prevalence of SLE, the impact of age, gender and race/ethnicity in SLE and in the survival of those affected. Expert commentary: Age, gender and race/ethnicity impact disease expression in SLE patients; despite improvements in survival, mortality in SLE remains almost three times higher than in the general population.