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We devised a new method for examining the structural changes that occur in trabecular bone in aging and in osteoporosis. With simultaneous measurement of total perimeter and bone area in thin sections, indirect indices of mean trabecular plate thickness (MTPT) and mean trabecular plate density (MTPD) can be derived, such that trabecular bone volume = MTPD X MTPT. MTPD is an index of the probability that a scanning or test line will intersect a structural element of bone, and is the reciprocal of the mean distance between the midpoints of structural elements, multiplied by pi/2. We applied this method to iliac bone samples from 78 normal subjects, 100 patients with vertebral fracture, and 50 patients with hip fracture. The reduction in trabecular bone volume observed in normal subjects with increasing age was mainly due to a reduction in plate density, with no significant decrease in plate thickness. The further reduction in trabecular bone volume observed in patients with osteoporotic vertebral fracture was mainly due to a further reduction in plate density. There was a relatively smaller reduction in plate thickness that was statistically significant in males but not in females. Only in patients with hip fracture did trabecular thinning contribute substantially to the additional loss of trabecular bone in osteoporosis relative to age. These data indicate that age-related bone loss occurs principally by a process that removes entire structural elements of bone; those that remain are more widely separated and some may undergo compensatory thickening, but most slowly become reduced in thickness. We propose that the process of removal is initiated by increased depth of osteoclastic resorption cavities which leads to focal perforation of trabecular plates; this is followed by progressive enlargement of the perforations with conversion of plates to rods. The resulting structural changes are more severe in osteoporotic patients than in normal subjects, but have been completed in most patients before they develop symptoms.