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OBJECTIVE--To examine the role of peak bone mass and subsequent postmenopausal bone loss in the development of osteoporosis and the reliability of identifying women at risk from one bone mass measurement and one biochemical assessment of the future bone loss. DESIGN--Population based study. SETTING--Outpatient clinic for research into osteoporosis. SUBJECTS--178 healthy early postmenopausal women who had participated in a two year study in 1977. 154 of the women underwent follow up examination in 1989, of whom 33 were excluded because of diseases or taking drugs known to affect calcium metabolism. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES--Bone mineral content of the forearm and values of biochemical markers of bone turnover. RESULTS--The average reduction in bone mineral content during 1977-89 was 20%, but the fast losers had lost 10.0% more than had the slow loser group (mean loss 26.6% in fast losers and 16.6% in slow losers; p less than 0.001). Prediction of future bone mineral content using baseline bone mineral content and estimated rate of loss gave results almost identical with the actual bone mineral content measured in 1989. Seven women had had a Colles' fracture and 20 a spinal compression fracture. The group with Colles' fracture had low baseline bone mineral content (34.7 (95% confidence interval 31.3 to 38.1) units v 39.4 (38.1 to 40.8) units in women with no fracture) whereas the group with spinal fracture had a normal baseline bone mineral content (38.1 (35.0 to 41.1) units) but an increased rate of loss (-2.4 (-3.5 to -1.3)%/year v -1.8 (-2.1 to -1.5)%/year in women with no fracture). CONCLUSIONS--One baseline measurement of bone mass combined with a single estimation of the rate of bone loss can reliably identify the women at menopause who are at highest risk of developing osteoporosis later in life. The rate of loss may have an independent role in likelihood of vertebral fracture.