OBJECTIVE: To look for preclinical markers of Alzheimer's dementia in a sample of healthy, oldest old individuals. DESIGN: Prospective, longitudinal study of individuals examined at yearly intervals with neuropsychological tests selected to he sensitive to the early detection of dementia. PARTICIPANTS: One hundred and thirty-nine community-dwelling, functionally independent, healthy individuals 65 to 106 years of age who met strict criteria for lack of dementia at entry. Incident dementia cases consisted of 16 volunteers all 80 years old or older who developed dementia of the Alzheimer's type and 31 volunteers 80 years old and older showing no evidence of dementia during a mean 2.8-year follow-up interval. MEASUREMENTS: Scores on 10 neuropsychological measures were analyzed for the initial examination when none of the volunteers showed clinical evidence of dementia and for the two subsequent yearly examinations. RESULTS: Individuals who subsequently developed dementia showed evidence of verbal memory impairment at their initial examination, which was a mean of 2.8 years before clinical evidence of dementia. The average yearly incidence rate for dementia in those 80 years of age and older was 12%. Performance of individuals who did not development dementia remained relatively stable during follow-up for up to 5 years. CONCLUSION: Alzheimer's disease has a preclinical stage in which verbal memory decline is the earliest sign. Dementia in the oldest old is distinguishable from age-related cognitive decline.