To determine the potential efficacy of the CA 125 assay as one component of a strategy for early detection of ovarian malignancy, serum CA 125 levels were determined in 1082 women 40 years of age or older in Stockholm. Initial serum CA 125 levels exceeded 35 U/ml in 36 women (3.3%) and 65 U/ml in 11 women (1.0%), placing the exact 95% upper confidence limits on false positive rates for a single screen at 4.3 and 1.7%, respectively. Follow-up CA 125 levels were obtained for those women with initially elevated levels and a group of age-matched controls. Mean CA 125 levels declined significantly for women with initially elevated levels (P = 0.0014). Interindividual variation and variation within individual subjects over the entire follow-up period were 52 and 35%, respectively. Of the 36 subjects with initially elevated serum CA 125 levels, only 2 showed a doubling of these levels; in only 1 of these 2 was this increase sustained. Intensive clinical follow-up with pelvic examination and ultrasonography, with investigators blinded to CA 125 results, led to the diagnosis of Stage III ovarian cancer in the latter individual. Diagnosis was made 21 months after the initially elevated serum CA 125 measurement and 15 months after the first measured doubling of that level. Because no other malignancies were identified at entry or during the follow-up period (median 560 days) in the women with elevated CA 125 levels, the specificity of the assay over that time period would have been 99.9% using the doubling of an initially elevated value as the criterion for determining positivity and 100% using as the criterion a sustained increase in level for those with initially elevated levels that doubled. These results support the continued investigation of longitudinally collected CA 125 levels to identify individuals at high risk for ovarian malignancy.