Studies have shown that various antioxidants are decreased in different age-related degenerative diseases and thus, oxidative stress would have a central role in the pathogenesis of many disorders that involve neuronal degeneration, including Alzheimer's disease (AD). The present study aimed to assess the nutritional status of Se in AD patients and to compare with control subjects with normal cognitive function. The case–control study was carried out on a group of elderly with AD (n 28) and compared with a control group (n 29), both aged between 60 and 89 years. Se intake was evaluated by using a 3-d dietary food record. Se was evaluated in plasma, erythrocytes and nails by using the method of hydride generation atomic absorption spectroscopy. Deficient Se intake was largely observed in the AD group. AD patients showed significantly lower Se levels in plasma, erythrocytes and nails (32·59 μg/l, 43·74 μg/l and 0·302 μg/g) when compared with the control group (50·99 μg/l, 79·16 μg/l and 0·400 μg/g). The results allowed us to suggest that AD has an important relation with Se deficiency.