To identify factors related to the development of end-stage renal disease after the onset of proteinuria, its incidence was determined in 364 Pima Indians aged 35 years or older with Type 2 (non-insulin-dependent) diabetes mellitus and proteinuria (protein-to-creatinine ratio > or = 0.5 g/g). Of these 364 subjects, 95 (36 men, 59 women) developed end-stage renal disease. The cumulative incidence was 40% 10 years after and 61% 15 years after the onset of proteinuria. The incidence of end-stage renal disease was significantly related to the duration of diabetes, the duration of proteinuria, higher 2-h plasma glucose concentration, type of diabetes treatment, and the presence of retinopathy at the time of recognition of the proteinuria, but not to age, sex, or blood pressure. Duration of proteinuria influenced the risk of end-stage renal disease, contingent, however, upon the duration of diabetes at the onset of proteinuria. The higher cumulative incidence of end-stage renal disease 15 years after the onset of proteinuria in Pima Indians (61%) than in Caucasians from Rochester, Minnesota (17%) may be attributable, in part, to the younger age of onset of Type 2 diabetes in Pima Indians than in Caucasians, to ethnic differences in susceptibility to renal disease, or to lower death rates among the Pima Indians from competing causes of death, such as coronary heart disease.