Background. The effectiveness of calcium in retarding bone loss in older postmenopausal women is unclear. Earlier work suggested that the women who were most likely to benefit from calcium supplementation were those with low calcium intakes. Methods. We undertook a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial to determine the effect of calcium on bone loss from the spine, femoral neck, and radius in 301 healthy postmenopausal women, half of whom had a calcium intake lower than 400 mg per day and half an intake of 400 to 650 mg per day. The women received placebo or either calcium carbonate or calcium citrate malate (500 mg of calcium per day) for two years. Results. In women who had undergone menopause five or fewer years earlier, bone loss from the spine was rapid and was not affected by supplementation with calcium. Among the women who had been postmenopausal for six years or more and who were given placebo, bone loss was less rapid in the group with the higher dietary calcium intake. In those with the lower calcium intake, calcium citrate malate prevented bone loss during the two years of the study; its effect was significantly different from that of placebo (P less than 0.05) at the femoral neck (mean change in bone density [+/- SE], 0.87 +/- 1.01 percent vs. -2.11 +/- 0.93 percent), radius (1.05 +/- 0.75 percent vs. -2.33 +/- 0.72 percent), and spine (-0.38 +/- 0.82 percent vs. -2.85 +/- 0.77 percent). Calcium carbonate maintained bone density at the femoral neck (mean change in bone density, 0.08 +/- 0.98 percent) and radius (0.24 +/- 0.70 percent) but not the spine (-2.54 +/- 0.85 percent). Among the women who had been postmenopausal for six years or more and who had the higher calcium intake, those in all three treatment groups maintained bone density at the hip and radius and lost bone from the spine. Conclusions. Healthy older postmenopausal women with a daily calcium intake of less than 400 mg can significantly reduce bone loss by increasing their calcium intake to 800 mg per day. At the dose we tested, supplementation with calcium citrate malate was more effective than supplementation with calcium carbonate.