Loss of bone is a significant problem after renal transplant. Although bone loss in the first post transplant year has been well documented, conflicting data exist concerning bone loss after this time. It is equally unclear whether bone loss in long-term renal transplant recipients correlates with bone turnover as it does in postmenapausal osteoporosis. To examine these issues, we conducted a cross-sectional study to define the prevalence of osteoporosis in long-term (> 1 year) renal transplant recipients with preserved renal function (mean creatinine clearance 73 +/- 23 ml/min). Bone mineral density (BMD) was measured at the hip, spine and wrist by DEXA in 69 patients. Markers for bone formation (serum osteocalcin) and bone resorption [urinary levels of pyridinoline (PYD) and deoxypyridinoline (DPD)] were also measured as well as parameters of calcium metabolism. Correlations were made between these parameters and BMD at the various sites. The mean age of the patients was 45 +/- 11 years. Eighty eight percent of patients were on cyclosporine (12% on tacrolimus) and all but 2 were on prednisone [mean dose 9 +/- 2 mg/day)]. Osteoporosis (BMD more than 2.5 SD below peak adult BMD) at the spine or hip was diagnosed in 44% of patients and osteopenia was present in an additional 44%. Elevated levels of intact parathyroid hormone (i PTH) were observed in 81% of patients. Elevated urinary levels of PYD or DPD were present in 73% of patients and 38% had elevated serum levels of osteocalcin. Levels of calcium, and of 25(OH) and 1,25(OH)2 vitamin D were normal. In a stepwise multiple regression model that included osteocalcin, PYD, DPD, intact PTH, age, years posttransplant, duration of dialysis, cumulative prednisone dose, smoking, and diabetes: urinary PYD was the strongest predictor of bone mass. These results demonstrate that osteoporosis is common in long-term renal transplant recipients. The data also suggest that elevated rates of bone resorption contribute importantly to this process.