OBJECTIVES: To assess the influence of socioeconomic position over a lifetime on risk factors for cardiovascular disease, on morbidity, and on mortality from various causes. DESIGN: Prospective observational study with 21 years of follow up. Social class was determined as manual or non-manual at three stages of participants' lives: from the social class of their father's job, the social class of their first job, and the social class of their job at the time of screening. A cumulative social class indicator was constructed, ranging from non-manual social class at all three stages of life to manual social class at all three stages. SETTING: 27 workplaces in the west of Scotland. PARTICIPANTS: 5766 men aged 35-64 at the time of examination. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Prevalence and level of risk factors for cardiovascular disease; morbidity; and mortality from broad causes of death. RESULTS: From non-manual social class locations at all three life stages to manual at all stages there were strong positive trends for blood pressure, body mass index, current cigarette smoking, angina, and bronchitis. Inverse trends were seen for height, cholesterol concentration, lung function, and being an ex-smoker. 1580 men died during follow up. Age adjusted relative death rates in comparison with the men of non-manual social class locations at all three stages of life were 1.29 (95% confidence interval 1.08 to 1.56) in men of two non-manual and one manual social class; 1.45 (1.21 to 1.73) in men of two manual and one non-manual social class; and 1.71 (1.46 to 2.01) in men of manual social class at all three stages. Mortality from cardiovascular disease showed a similar graded association with cumulative social class. Mortality from cancer was mainly raised among men of manual social class at all three stages. Adjustment for a wide range of risk factors caused little attenuation in the association of cumulative social class with mortality from all causes and from cardiovascular disease; greater attenuation was seen in the association with mortality from non-cardiovascular, non-cancer disease. Fathers having a manual [corrected] occupation was strongly associated with mortality from cardiovascular disease: relative rate 1.41 (1.15 to 1.72). Participants' social class at the time of screening was more strongly associated than the other social class indicators with mortality from cancer and from non-cardiovascular, non-cancer causes. CONCLUSIONS: Socioeconomic factors acting over the lifetime affect health and risk of premature death. The relative importance of influences at different stages varies for the cause of death. Studies with data on socioeconomic circumstances at only one stage of life are inadequate for fully elucidating the contribution of socioeconomic factors to health and mortality risk.