Although adiponectin levels are associated with obesity and insulin insensitivity, the role of adiponectin in the progression to diabetes in non-obese subjects is unclear. Therefore, 289 women aged 50-80 years without previous history of diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance (IGT) were studied. They were classified as normal glucose tolerance (NGT), IGT or diabetes based on WHO criteria. Insulin sensitivity (S) and beta cell function (B) indices were calculated using homeostasis model assessment (HOMA). In obese women with BMI > or = 25 kg/m(2) (n = 161), there were declines in HOMA-%S (P < 0.001), HOMA-%B (P < 0.05) and circulating adiponectin (P < 0.001) across glucose tolerance status. In non-obese women with BMI < 25 kg/m(2) (n = 128), there was no significant change in HOMA-%S in women with IGT and diabetes as compared to women with NGT. However, HOMA-%B (P < 0.05) and serum adiponectin levels (P < 0.001) were significantly decreased across glucose tolerance. Serum adiponectin levels were correlated to HOMA-%S in both obese and non-obese women while negative correlations between circulating adiponectin and HOMA-%B were demonstrated only in obese women. We have demonstrated in the present study the predominant role of beta cell dysfunction as compared to that of insulin resistance in the deterioration of glucose tolerance in non-obese women. Circulating adiponectin appears to be inversely related to beta cell dysfunction in addition to insulin resistance only in obese women.