BACKGROUND Overweight is associated with an increased cardiovascular risk which is only partially explained by conventional risk factors. The objective of this study was to evaluate lipoprotein(a) [Lp(a)] plasma levels and apolipoprotein(a) [apo(a)] phenotypes in relation to coronary heart disease (CHD) in overweight subjects. METHODS A total of 275 overweight (BMI > or = 27 kg/m2) subjects, of which 155 had experienced a CHD event, 337 normal weight subjects with prior CHD and 103 CHD-free normal weight subjects were enrolled in the study. Lp(a) levels were determined by an ELISA technique and apo(a) isoforms were detected by a high-resolution immunoblotting method. RESULTS Lp(a) levels were similar in the three study groups. Overweight subjects with CHD had Lp(a) concentrations significantly higher than those without [median (interquartile range): 20 (5-50.3) versus 12.6 (2.6-38.6) mg/dl, P < 0.05]. Furthermore, overweight subjects with CHD showed a higher prevalence of low molecular weight apo(a) isoforms than those without (55.5% versus 40.8%, P < 0.05) and with respect to the control group (55.5% versus 39.8%, P < 0.05). Stepwise regression analysis showed that apo(a) phenotypes, but not Lp(a) levels, entered the model as significant independent predictors of CHD in overweight subjects. CONCLUSIONS Our data indicate that small-sized apo(a) isoforms are associated with CHD in overweight subjects. The characterization of apo(a) phenotypes might serve as a reliable biomarker to better assess the overall CHD risk of each subject with elevated BMI, leading to more intensive treatment of modifiable cardiovascular risk factors.