Background The implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) is effective in preventing sudden cardiac death. However, in elderly patients (aged 75 years or older) the role of ICDs is still not well-defined and controversial. Methods We retrospectively analysed all clinical and survival data of all ICD patients who were >= 75 years at the date of implantation in the Erasmus MC, Rotterdam, the Netherlands and the University Hospital, Basel, Switzerland. Kaplan-Meier survival analysis was performed, and mortality predictors were identified. Mortality of the cohort was compared with a random sample of patients aged 60-70 years originating from the same database and to an age-and sex-matched cohort of Dutch persons. Results The study cohort consisted of 179 patients aged 75 years or older who were implanted between February 1999 and July 2008. The median follow-up time was 2.0 (IQR 2.8) years. Survival rates after 1, 2 and 3 years were 87, 82, 75 %, respectively. Survival was similar for primary and secondary prevention. Mortality in this study population could be predicted by combining four clinical risk factors: QRS duration >120 ms, NYHA class > II, renal failure and atrial fibrillation (AF). Survival was worse compared with the group of ICD patients aged 60-70 years and to the age-and sex-matched group of elderly persons. However, survival was not significantly worse when comparing elderly ICD patients without additional risk factors to the general population. Conclusions Elderly patients still have an acceptable survival probability independent of prevention indication, certainly if there are no additional clinical risk factors. The presence or absence of additional clinical risk factors should be taken into account when making the decision for implantation, since they strongly correlate with survival.