In order to determine the prevalence of reported sleep disturbances in a general adult population and the relationship of these complaints to age, gender and coexistent obstructive airways disease, 2,187 subjects in the Tucson Epidemiologic Study of Obstructive Airways Disease were surveyed in 1985 regarding their sleep symptoms. At least one symptom of disturbed sleep was present in 41.4 percent of all subjects. Women generally reported a significantly higher prevalence of both disorders of initiating and maintaining sleep (DIMS) and nightmares (NM)(p less than .001). Before age 64 years, the prevalence of complaints of excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) among men and women were similar. However, the frequency of EDS was significantly higher in men than women after age 64 years. Prevalence of at least one sleep symptom and DIMS increased with advancing age. The prevalence of nightmares appeared to be age-related only among women, who displayed a declining prevalence with advancing age. EDS increased only after age 64 years. There was a significant relationship between DIMS and EDS with coexistent chronic bronchitis, concomitant asthma and chronic bronchitis, and emphysema, but not asthma as a solitary diagnosis. Nightmares were reported with much greater frequency among subjects with asthma, asthma and chronic bronchitis, and emphysema but not in subjects with chronic bronchitis alone. The presence of coexistent asthma and chronic bronchitis was associated with particularly high prevalence of complaints of DIMS, EDS and nightmares. We conclude that, in the general adult population, sleep disorder symptoms increase with age and usually are greater in women. Furthermore, there is an increased prevalence of sleep symptoms among adults with chronic airways obstructive disease, especially those with coexistent asthma and chronic bronchitis.