Low mortality rates for the elective surgical treatment of abdominal aortic aneurysms justify an aggressive approach in most patients. However, in high-risk patients with small aneurysms and no symptoms, the decision to operate remains a delicate balance of risk and benefit. Our observations include 99 high-risk patients with asymptomatic abdominal aortic aneurysms initially measuring 3 to 6 cm in the largest transverse diameter, who have been followed 1 to 9 years (average 2.4 years) with serial echographic measurements. Elective operations were performed for aneurysmal enlargement greater than 6 cm or symptom development. An additional 11 patients with aneurysms initially greater than 6 cm, whose initial evaluation did not result in elective surgery, were also followed. Serial data documented a mean expansion rate of 0.4 cm/year for aneurysms smaller than 6 cm. Forty-one of these 99 high-risk patients with small aneurysms eventually underwent an elective resection with two deaths (4.9%). Thirty-four patients (34%) died from causes unrelated to their unoperated aneurysms, and 21 patients (21%) are alive without symptoms. Three of the 99 patients suffered aneurysm rupture and emergency operation with two deaths. Thus, of the 99 high-risk patients with small aneurysms, four have died of elective aneurysm surgery or rupture (4%). A protocol of re-echo (or computerized tomography) examination at 3-month intervals appears to define which of these high-risk patients require elective aneurysm surgery, and has limited rupture to less than 5%. Improved criteria may emerge from recent advances in high-resolution computerized tomography.