BACKGROUND: Genetic risk factors are important in Alzheimer's disease (AD). These risk factors might also predispose for other disorders. This might lead to a familial coaggregation of AD and other disorders, e.g. Down's syndrome or Parkinson's disease. In the present study the risk of physical disorders in relatives of AD patients, of depressed patients and of control subjects were compared. METHODS: Family history and, if possible, interview information on physical disorders and causes of death in relatives of 146 patients with AD, 168 patients with major depression (MD) and 136 controls was collected. Statistical comparisons were performed using chi-square tests and, if necessary, logistic regression analysis accounting for age, gender and interview status. RESULTS: In contrast to our hypotheses, there was no increased risk of cerebrovascular disease, Down's syndrome, haematological malignancies or Parkinson's disease in relatives of AD patients compared with relatives of patients with MD and of controls. The explorative analysis revealed that congenital malformations, i.e. malformations of the heart or of the extremities, were slightly increased in relatives of AD patients. Relatives of patients with AD or MD were at increased risk of dying as a result of accidents, in most cases falls in advanced age, and relatives of patients with MD were at slightly increased risk of dying from gastroenterologic diseases, in most cases complications of peptic ulcers. CONCLUSION: The results do not support a major overlap between the genetic risk of AD and the genetic risk of cerebrovascular disease, Down's syndrome, haematological malignancies or Parkinson's disease. The finding of an increased risk of congenital malformations in relatives of AD patients needs further replication before it can be stated. The increased risk of dementia or depression with cognitive impairment in elderly relatives of patients with AD or MD increases the risk of accidents like falls. The genetic risk of depression in relatives of patients with MD could have a negative influence on the prognosis of peptic ulcera.