Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is often prescribed for a few years to suppress menopausal symptoms. Although its long-term use of HRT for the primary prevention of osteoporosis is not currently recommended, the long-term skeletal benefits of the limited therapy are of great interest. To determine whether administration of HRT for 2-3 years in the early postmenopausal years provides long-term benefits, such as prevention of bone loss and osteoporotic fractures, we studied a group of 347 healthy postmenopausal women with normal bone mass who had earlier completed one of four placebo-controlled HRT trials and who were reexamined 5, 11, or 15 years after stopping HRT. Of these women, 263 received either HRT or placebo for 2-3 years with no further bone-sparing treatment until follow-up, and the remaining 84 women reported either prolonged or current use of HRT at reexamination. Bone mineral density (BMD) at the spine (L1-L4) and bone mineral content (BMC) in the forearm were measured at baseline, the end of the trials, and follow-up. At follow-up, we assessed the radiological presence of vertebral fracture and collected information on the new incidence of nonvertebral fractures. Compared with that of the placebo-treated women, the BMD and BMC of HRT-treated women continued to show significantly higher values (>5%) even many years after stopping HRT. After stopping treatment, the rate of bone loss returned to normal postmenopausal rates. The preservation of bone mass in the HRT group was accompanied by a significantly reduced risk of all osteoporotic fractures as compared with the placebo group [OR = 0.48 (95% CI, 0.26-0.88)]. 'Fast losers' on placebo had more than a 4-fold higher risk of fractures than had the women on limited HRT with a normal rate of bone loss after withdrawal. In conclusion, limited HRT administered in the early postmenopausal years offers long-lasting benefits for the prevention of postmenopausal bone loss and osteoporotic fracture.