To determine if there is a relationship between body mass index and the ability to perform the usual activities of living in a sample of community-dwelling elderly. Secondary data analysis of The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey-I Epidemiologic Follow-up Study (1982-1984). Follow-up home interview of a population-based sample originally interviewed between 1971 and 1975 in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey-I (NHANES-I). Survivors of the original NHANES-I cohort who were 65 years of age or older and who were living at home at the time of the second interview (n = 3061). Excluded were those who could not be found, refused participation, or were institutionalized (n = 220), and those without complete height and weight data (n = 194). Functional status as measured by a 26-item battery. Bivariate analysis revealed a greater risk for functional impairment for subjects with a low body mass index or a high body mass index. The greater the extreme of body mass index (either higher or lower), the greater the risk for functional impairment. Logistic regression analysis indicated that both high and low body mass index continued to be significantly related to functional status when 22 other potential confounders were included in the model. The body mass index is related to the functional capabilities of community-dwelling elderly. The inclusion of this simple measurement in the comprehensive assessment of community-dwelling elderly is supported.