Previous studies report that low levels cognitive function and history of smoking are associated with increased mortality risk. Elderly smokers may have increased risk of dementia, but risk in former smokers is unclear. We tested the hypotheses that the harmful effect of impaired cognitive function as related to mortality is greater in persons smoking at baseline than in others. Further, we used serum cotinine levels to assess recall bias of smoking history by cognitive function level. Data were analyzed from a longitudinal mortality follow-up study of 4,916 American men and women aged 60 years and over, examined in 1988–1994 with complete data followed an average 8.5 years. Measurements at baseline included smoking history, a short index of cognitive function (SICF), serum cotinine and socio-demographics. Death during follow-up occurred in 1,919 persons. In proportional hazards regression analysis, a significant interaction of current smoking with cognitive function was not found; but there was a significant age-smoking interaction. After adjusting for confounding by age or multiple variables, current smoking associated with over 2-fold increased mortality (hazards ratio and 95% confidence limits current versus never smoking 2.13, 1.75–2.59) and SICF with 32% reduction in mortality; top versus bottom SICF stratum 0.68, 0.53–0.88). Serum cotinine data revealed substantial recall bias of smoking history in persons with cognitive impairment. However analyses correcting for this bias did not alter the main conclusions: In a nationwide cohort of older Americans, analyses demonstrated a lower risk of death independent of confounders among those with high SICF scores and never smokers, without a significant interaction of the two.