Early life factors may influence pulmonary function. We measured forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV(1)) in 1985-1986 and 2, 5, and 10 years later in approximately 4,000 black and white men and women initially aged 18-30 years. We estimated the age pattern of FEV(1) according to family smoking status, early diagnosis of asthma, early smoking initiation, adult asthma, and cigarette smoking. FEV(1) followed a quadratic pattern from age of peak through age 40. The pattern varied by race and sex. Early smoking initiation was associated with a faster decrease in FEV(1). Smoking by family members was related to early life asthma and may have contributed to faster FEV(1) decrease by encouraging behaviors such as heavier smoking or earlier smoking initiation. Prevalence of smoking was 28% when no family member smoked, compared with 59% when four or more members smoked. The FEV(1) decline was 8.5% in never-smokers without asthma; 10.1% in nonsmoking individuals diagnosed with asthma; and 11.1% in baseline smokers who smoked 15 or more cigarettes per day. The combination of asthma and heavier smoking was synergistic (17.8% decline). This study delineates an increased rate of decline in those with asthma or in those who smoke cigarettes and implicates early life exposures as contributing to the faster rate of FEV(1) decline.