Few studies have evaluated risk factors for bone loss in elderly women and men. Thus, we examined risk factors for 4-year longitudinal change in bone mineral density (BMD) at the hip, radius, and spine in elders. Eight hundred elderly women and men from the population-based Framingham Osteoporosis Study had BMD assessed in 1988-1989 and again in 1992-1993. BMD was measured at femoral neck, trochanter, Ward's area, radial shaft, ultradistal radius, and lumbar spine using Lunar densitometers. We examined the relation of the following factors at baseline to percent BMD loss: age, weight, change in weight, height, smoking, caffeine, alcohol use, physical activity, serum 25-OH vitamin D, calcium intake, and current estrogen replacement in women. Multivariate regression analyses were conducted with simultaneous adjustment for all variables. Mean age at baseline was 74 years +/-4.5 years (range, 67-90 years). Average 4-year BMD loss for women (range, 3.4-4.8%) was greater than the loss for men (range, 0.2-3.6%) at all sites; however, BMD fell with age in both elderly women and elderly men. For women, lower baseline weight, weight loss in interim, and greater alcohol use were associated with BMD loss. Women who gained weight during the interim gained BMD or had little change in BMD. For women, current estrogen users had less bone loss than nonusers; at the femoral neck, nonusers lost up to 2.7% more BMD. For men, lower baseline weight and weight loss also were associated with BMD loss. Men who smoked cigarettes at baseline lost more BMD at the trochanter site. Surprisingly, bone loss was not affected by caffeine, physical activity, serum 25-OH vitamin D, or calcium intake. Risk factors consistently associated with bone loss in elders include female sex, thinness, and weight loss, while weight gain appears to protect against bone loss for both men and women. This population-based study suggests that current estrogen use may help to maintain bone in women, whereas current smoking was associated with bone loss in men. Even in the elderly years, potentially modifiable risk factors, such as weight, estrogen use, and cigarette smoking are important components of bone health.