Mortality from coronary heart disease (CHD) has declined in the United States since the late 1960s. To understand the reasons for the decline during the period form 1985 to 1990, we examined trends in mortality and morbidity due to CHD, medical care, and risk factors for CHD in a large metropolitan population. We identified all deaths from CHD in residents of the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, metropolitan area who were 30 to 74 years old and classified the deaths according to whether they occurred in or out of the hospital. For 1985 and 1990, we obtained lists of patients in this age range who were discharged with a diagnosis of acute CHD from all area hospitals, and we selected the medical records of 50 percent of these patients for abstraction. Definite myocardial infarctions were identified with standardized diagnostic algorithm. The 1985 and 1990 cohorts of patients hospitalized for myocardial infarction were followed for at least three years to identify those who died from any cause. Trends in risk factors for CHD were investigated through surveys of 25-to-74-year-olds that were conducted in 1985 through 1987 and 1990 through 1992. Between 1985 and 1990, mortality from CHD fell by 25 percent for both men and women, and the decline in in-hospital mortality (41 percent) exceeded the decline in out-of-hospital mortality (17 percent) among men. The rates of hospitalization for acute myocardial infarction declined slightly, by 5 to 10 percent, between 1985 and 1990. Survival among patients hospitalized for acute myocardial infarction increased substantially during that period. After adjustment for age and previous myocardial infarction, the relative risk of dying within three years of hospitalization for a myocardial infarction (for the 1990 cohort as compared with the 1985 cohort) was 0.76 for men (95 percent confidence interval, 0.65 to 0.89) and 0.84 for women (95 percent confidence interval, 0.71 to 1.00). Substantial increases in the use of thrombolytic therapy, heparin, aspirin, and coronary angioplasty paralleled the survival trends. In general, the risk-factor profile of the area population with respect to CHD also improved considerably during that time. The recent decline in mortality due to CHD in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area can be explained by both the declining incidence of myocardial infarction in the population and the improved survival of patients with myocardial infarction.