The consensus from published studies is that plasma lipids are each influenced by genetic factors, and that this contributes to genetic variation in risk of cardiovascular disease. Heritability estimates for lipids and lipoproteins are in the range .48 to .87, when measured once per study participant. However, this ignores the confounding effects of biological variation measurement error and ageing, and a truer assessment of genetic effects on cardiovascular risk may be obtained from analysis of longitudinal twin or family data. We have analyzed information on plasma high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and triglycerides, from 415 adult twins who provided blood on two to five occasions over 10 to 17 years. Multivariate modeling of genetic and environmental contributions to variation within and across occasions was used to assess the extent to which genetic and environmental factors have long-term effects on plasma lipids. Results indicated that more than one genetic factor influenced HDL and LDL components of cholesterol, and triglycerides over time in all studies. Nonshared environmental factors did not have significant long-term effects except for HDL. We conclude that when heritability of lipid risk factors is estimated on only one occasion, the existence of biological variation and measurement errors leads to underestimation of the importance of genetic factors as a cause of variation in long-term risk within the population. In addition our data suggest that different genes may affect the risk profile at different ages.