Atherosclerosis begins in childhood and progresses from fatty streaks to raised lesions in adolescence and young adulthood. A cooperative multicenter study (Pathobiological Determinants of Atherosclerosis in Youth [PDAY]) examined the relation of risk factors for adult coronary heart disease to atherosclerosis in 1079 men and 364 women 15 through 34 years of age, both black and white, who died of external causes and were autopsied in forensic laboratories. We quantitated atherosclerosis of the aorta and right coronary artery as the extent of intimal surface involved by fatty streaks and raised lesions and analyzed postmorterm serum for lipoprotein cholesterol and thiocyanate (as an indicator of smoking). The extent of intimal surface involved with both fatty streaks and raised lesions increased with age in all arterial segments of all sex and race groups. Women had a greater extent of fatty streaks in the abdominal aorta than men, but women and men had about an equal extent of raised lesions. Women and men had a comparable extent of fatty streaks in the right coronary artery, but women had about half the extent of raised lesions. Blacks had a greater extent of fatty streaks than whites, but blacks and whites had a similar extent of raised lesions. VLDL plus LDL cholesterol concentration was associated positively and HDL cholesterol was associated negatively with the extent of fatty streaks and raised lesions in the aorta and right coronary artery. Smoking was associated with more extensive fatty streaks and raised lesions in the abdominal aorta. All three risk factors affected atherosclerosis to about the same degree in both sexes and both races. Primary prevention of atherosclerosis by controlling these adult coronary heart disease risk factors is applicable to young men and women and to young blacks and whites.