BACKGROUND: In all 8353 women and 7058 men aged 45-64 took part in the Renfrew/Paisley survey in 1972-1976. They formed a prospective cohort study of a general population in the West of Scotland; an area with high ischaemic heart disease (IHD) mortality rates. The objective of this study was to investigate three indicators of pre-existing IHD and determine how they predicted subsequent IHD mortality in females compared with males. METHODS: Pre-existing IHD was ascertained by the Rose Angina questionnaire, a question on severe chest pain indicating evidence of previous IHD and an electrocardiogram at a screening examination. Mortality information for a 15-year follow-up period was available. RESULTS: Pre-existing IHD was higher at older ages and was less common in women than men. The risks of IHD mortality were doubled for those with a single cardiovascular indicator compared to those without, and were increased to fourfold for those with two or more indicators. Indicators of pre-existing IHD had high specificity and low sensitivity for subsequent IHD mortality in both women and men, and the positive predictive values for women in the oldest age group were similar to those for men in the youngest age group. CONCLUSIONS: Each indicator of pre-existing IHD was a useful predictor of subsequent IHD mortality in both women and men, even though IHD mortality rates were lower in women. The indicators obtained by questionnaire could be implemented in the primary health care setting to identify quickly those at risk who would benefit from further investigation and intervention.