Objective. To describe, for the first time in Brazil, the prevalence of risk factors and the use of preventive health care services among adults 60 years and older. Methods. This population-based study was conducted during 1996-1997 in the state of Minas Gerais, in the town of Bambuí, which is located in the municipality of the same name. In 1996 the town had 14 950 inhabitants. For the study, all the town's residents aged > or = 60 years were selected, along with a comparison sample of persons aged 18-59 years. Data were gathered using interviews and physical examinations. Results. Of the 1 742 inhabitants of the town of Bambuí aged > or = 60 years, 1 606 (92.2%) participated in the interview and 1 495 (85.8%) were examined (blood pressure, anthropometric measurements, and blood tests). Among the 1 020 younger adults selected for the survey, 909 of them (89.1%) participated in the interview, and 820 of them (80.4%) underwent the physical examination. The prevalence of the following risk factors was higher among older adults than among younger adults: physical inactivity (47.7% vs. 28.0%); blood pressure 140-159 mmHg (systolic) or 90-99 mmHg (diastolic) (25.8% vs. 8.7%); blood pressure > or = 160 mmHg (systolic) or > or = 100 mmHg (diastolic) (19.1% vs. 4.1%); total cholesterol > or = 240 mg/dL (40.6% vs. 9.8%); and blood glucose > or = 126 mg/dL (12.4% vs. 2.2%). The daily consumption of fruits and vegetables was similar among the older adults and the younger ones (51.9% and 51.7%), as was also body mass index > or = 25 kg/m² (51.6% and 56.2%). Smoking was lower among the older adults (18.7%) than among the younger ones (31.1%). The proportion of participants whose blood pressure had been checked in the preceding year was high (86.8% among the older adults and 61.2% among the younger ones), suggesting that the high prevalence of uncontrolled hypertension was not due to limited access to health care. Conclusions. For a long time it was believed that the kinds of risk factors that we found in the urban section of the municipality of Bambuí were public health problems only in large Brazilian cities. Around 72% of the municipalities in Brazil have<= 20 000 inhabitants, and these smaller municipalities contain some 19% of the country's entire population. The high prevalence of various risk factors among the older and younger adults in Bambuí indicates a great need for health promotion and disease prevention actions. More research is needed to find out whether our results in Bambuí reflect the reality of other small towns in Brazil.