The prospect of declining cognitive functions is a major fear for many elderly persons. Cerebral white matter lesions, as commonly found with magnetic resonance imaging, have been associated with cognitive dysfunction in cross-sectional studies. Only a few longitudinal studies using small cohorts confirmed these findings. We examined the relation between severity of white matter lesions and cognitive decline over a nearly 10-year period in 563 elderly subjects sampled from the general nondemented Dutch population. Severity of white matter lesions was scored for periventricular and subcortical regions separately using an extensive semiquantitative scale. Cognitive function was measured by the Mini-Mental State Examination at regular time intervals during 1990 to 2000, and magnetic resonance imaging scans were made in 1995 to 1996. More severe white matter lesions were associated with more rapid cognitive decline over a mean follow-up period of 7.3 years (standard deviation, 1.5). After adjusting for age, gender, educational level, measures of depression, and brain atrophy and infarcts, subjects with severe periventricular white matter lesions experienced cognitive decline nearly three times as fast (0.28 Mini-Mental State Examination points/year [95% confidence interval, 0.20-0.36]) as the average (0.10 points/year [95% confidence interval, 0.09-0.111). There was no independent relationship between severity of subcortical white matter lesions and rate of cognitive decline.