In spite of the breakneck speed at which understanding of the biological basis of the aging process has evolved, the important determinants of aging and longevity have yet to be uncovered. The preservation of cognitive functioning is an essential component of successful aging, and the ability to distinguish those who maintain cognitive health into advanced age from those who experience cognitive decline may influence public health efforts to prevent or delay the onset of cognitive impairment in old age. There is growing evidence implicating vascular risk factors and related subclinical cerebrovascular damage in cognitive impairment and dementia, but Alzheimer's disease is highly prevalent in older populations, and the role of inflammation in vascular and neurodegenerative processes is poorly understood. There is a growing need to examine the effects of these factors on normal cognitive aging. This brief survey of the literature reviews evidence of the roles of subclinical vascular brain damage and exposure to cerebrovascular risk factors in normal cognitive aging.