Vitamin D deficiency leads to secondary hyperparathyroidism, increased bone turnover, and bone loss and, when severe, to osteomalacia. Vitamin D deficiency is common in elderly people, especially the institutionalized. The definition of vitamin D deficiency is hampered by the fact that large interlaboratory differences exist in assays for serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25OHD), the main circulating metabolite. The international Multiple Outcomes of Raloxifene Evaluation study, a large prospective intervention trial in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis, offered the opportunity to compare vitamin D status and parathyroid function throughout many countries over the world. For this study, baseline data were available from 7564 postmenopausal women from 25 countries on 5 continents. All women had osteoporosis, i.e. bone mineral density (BMD) at femoral neck or lumbar spine was lower than t-score -2.5, or they had 2 vertebral fractures. Serum 25OHD was measured by RIA, and serum PTH was measured by immunoradiometric assay. BMD was measured by dual x-ray absorptiometry. The mean (+/-SD) serum 25OHD was 70.8 +/- 30.9 nmol/L. A low serum 25OHD (<25 nmol/L) was observed in 4.1% of all women in the Multiple Outcomes of Raloxifene Evaluation study, ranging from 0% in south east Asia (very few patients) to 8.3% in southern Europe. Serum 25OHD was between 25-50 nmol/L in 24.3% of the women. Serum 25OHD showed a significant seasonal relationship, with lower values in all regions in winter. Serum PTH correlated negatively with serum 25OHD (r = -0.25; P < 0.001). This significant negative correlation was observed in all regions. When serum 25OHD was less than 25, 25-50, or more than 50 nmol/L, respectively, mean serum PTH levels were 4.8, 4.1, and 3.5 pmol/L, respectively (by ANOVA, P < 0.001). Similarly, mean alkaline phosphatase levels were 83.7, 79.1, and 75.7 U/L (P < 0.001), respectively, with increasing serum 25OHD. The effect of serum 25OHD on BMD was only significant for the BMD of the trochanter where a serum 25OHD level less than 25 nmol/L was associated with a 4% lower BMD. After 6 months of treatment with vitamin D(3) (400-600 IU/day) and calcium (500 mg/day), serum 25OHD increased from 70.8 +/- 29.8 to 92.3 +/- 28.6 nmol/L. Serum PTH decreased significantly after 6 months of treatment, and this decrease depended on baseline serum 25OHD. When baseline serum 25OHD was less than 25, 25-50, or more than 50 nmol/L, respectively, serum PTH decreased by 0.8, 0.5, or 0.2 pmol/L, respectively (P < 0.001). In conclusion, serum 25OHD was less than 25 nmol/L in 4% of the women, and this was associated with a 30% higher serum PTH. In 24% of the women serum 25OHD was between 25-50 nmol/L, associated with a 15% higher level of serum PTH compared with women with a serum 25OHD greater than 50 nmol/L. A low serum 25OHD level was also associated with higher serum alkaline phosphatase and lower BMD of the trochanter. Treatment with vitamin D(3) and calcium increased serum 25OHD and decreased serum PTH significantly; the effect was greater for lower baseline serum 25OHD.