The relationship between marital status and cardiovascular risk was examined among 7,849 midwestern men and women in a community-based study. Separated/divorced persons report the highest rates of hospitalization for heart attack/stroke. Married and widowed persons report lower and intermediate rates, respectively, of such hospitalization. Never-married persons report hospitalization as low or lower than those of married persons. Analysis of specific risk characteristics suggests that different marital groups would benefit from different primary prevention programs. Separated/divorced persons report higher levels of smoking, drinking, and physical activity than married persons. Married men, however, have higher levels of total cholesterol and lower levels of serum high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. Characteristics of never-married persons tend to resemble those of the married, particularly at older ages; widows and widowers tend to have risk characteristics intermediate between those who are married and those who are separated/divorced. Findings indicate that marital status is important in identifying, understanding, and altering behavior known to increase risk for cardiovascular disease.