In a longitudinal study of 395 normal 10- to 24-year-old female volunteers, 105 of whom were initially premenarcheal, lumbar bone mineral density (BMD) and content (BMC) were measured by dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) at inclusion and after a 2-year interval. The mean age of menarche was 13.1 +/- 1.1 years (n = 395). In a multiple regression analysis the BMD and BMC relative gains were highly correlated with the height and weight relative gains and with the time since menarche (r = 0.91 and r = 0.93, respectively). The mean relative annual increments in body height, in L2-4 vertebral height, in BMD and in BMC peaked respectively at 1.5, 1.0, 0.6 and 0.7 years before menarche. The four perimenarcheal years, beginning with the first pubertal clinical signs, are essential for bone acquisition, since 46.7% of adult BMC is acquired during this period. Two years after menarche, BMC is 85% of the adult value. Seven years after menarche no further significant variation in BMC is observed. In 206 menstruating women 27-47 years old, a DXA lumbar measurement was also performed after a 4-year interval. There was a small but significant increase of 0.3%/year in BMD and 0.7%/year in BMC, contrasting with the results in the young population. This could be explained by a volumetric expansion with aging, which is supported by a small increase in L2-4 area (0.4%/year). In conclusion, this longitudinal study on the lumbar site emphasizes the importance of the pre- and perimenarcheal period, when half of lumbar adult BMC is acquired. This suggests that greater attention must be paid to this period regarding nutrition and physical activity.