Patients with known cardiovascular disease who have not had a recent acute event are often referred to as having stable coronary artery disease (CAD). The concept of ‘stable’ CAD is misleading for two important reasons: the continuing risks of cardiovascular events over the longer term and the diverse spectrum of powerful risk characteristics. The risks of cardiovascular events are frequently underestimated and continue to exist, despite current standards of care for secondary prevention, including lifestyle changes, optimal medical therapy, myocardial revascularization and the use of antiplatelet agents to limit thrombosis. In dispelling the myth of ‘stable’ CAD, we explore the pathophysiology of the disease and the relative contribution of plaque and systemic factors to cardiovascular events. A broader concept of the vulnerable patient, not just the vulnerable plaque, takes into account the diversity and future risks of atherothrombotic events. We also evaluate new and ongoing research into medical therapies aimed at further reducing the risks of cardiovascular events in patients with chronic — but not stable — atherothrombotic disease.