Osteoporosis is widely viewed as a major public health concern, but the exact magnitude of the problem is uncertain and likely to depend on how the condition is defined. Noninvasive bone mineral measurements can be used to define a state of heightened fracture risk (osteopenia), or the ultimate clinical manifestation of fracture can be assessed (established osteoporosis). If bone mineral measurements more than 2 standard deviations below the mean of young normal women represent osteopenia, then 45% of white women aged 50 years and over have the condition at one or more sites in the hip, spine, or forearm on the basis of population-based data from Rochester, Minnesota. A smaller proportion is affected at each specific skeletal site: 32% have bone mineral values this low in the lumbar spine, 29% in either of two regions in the proximal femur, and 26% in the midradius. Although this overall estimate is substantial, some other serious chronic diseases are almost as common. More importantly, low bone mass is associated with adverse health outcomes, especially fractures. The lifetime risk of any fracture of the hip, spine, or distal forearm is almost 40% in white women and 13% in white men from age 50 years onward. If the enormous costs associated with these fractures are to be reduced, increased attention must be given to the design and implementation of control programs directed at this major health problem.