To address the epidemiology of rib fractures, an age- and sex-stratified random sample of 699 Rochester, Minnesota, adults age 21-93 years was followed in a long-term prospective study. Bone mineral density (BMD) was assessed at baseline, and fractures were ascertained by periodic interview and medical record review. During 8560 person-years of followup (median, 13.9 years), 56 subjects experienced 67 rib fracture episodes. Risk factors for falling predicted rib fractures as well as BMD, but both were strongly age-related. After age-adjustment, BMD was associated with rib fractures in women but not men. Importantly, rib fractures attributed to severe trauma were associated with BMD in older individuals of both sexes. Self-reported heavy alcohol use doubled fracture risk but did not achieve significance due to limited statistical power. Bone density, along with heavy alcohol use and other risk factors for falling, contributes to the risk of rib fractures, but no one factor predominates. Older women with rib fractures, regardless of cause, should be considered for an osteoporosis evaluation, and strategies to prevent falling should be considered in both sexes.