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BACKGROUND: More than one million Americans suffer osteoporotic fractures yearly, resulting in a marked increase in morbidity and mortality. Despite a decrease in bone mineral density with increasing age in all ethnic groups and both genders, preventative and therapeutics efforts in osteoporosis have been focused on caucasian and Asian women. This study assesses the osteoporosis screening practices and the frequency of low bone density in a primarily African-American population of older women. METHODS: Medical records of 252 women at risk for osteoporosis were reviewed for the diagnosis of osteoporosis, prior osteoporosis screening, prior breast cancer screening, and the use of calcium, vitamin D or estrogen. Subsequently, 128 women were assessed for risk factors for osteoporosis, and their bone mineral density was measured using a peripheral bone densitometer. RESULTS: Osteoporosis screening had been performed in 11.5% of the subjects. Of the women evaluated by peripheral bone densitometry, 44.5% of all women, 40.4% of African-American women, and 53.3% of caucasian women had abnormally low bone density measurements. The frequency of abnormal bone density increased with both increasing age and decreasing body mass index. CONCLUSIONS: Although few women in this population were previously screened for osteoporosis, low bone density occurred in African-American women at substantial rates. Increasing age and low body mass are important risk factors for low bone density in African-American women. Ethnicity should not be used as an exclusion criterion for screening for osteoporosis.