Differences in endogenous androgen levels have been hypothesized to explain ethnic differences in prostate cancer risk. To examine this hypothesis, we gathered data on serum concentrations of androgens and sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) in healthy older men from four ethnic groups at different levels of prostate cancer risk. As part of a population-based case-control study of prostate cancer we conducted in California, Hawaii, and Vancouver, Canada, 1127 African-American, white, Chinese-American, and Japanese-American control men, mostly ages 60 years or older (mean age, 69.9 years) provided information on various lifestyle factors and donated an early morning fasting blood sample between March 1990 and March 1992. We used these data to examine the distributions of serum androgens [testosterone (total, free, and bioavailable), dihydrotestosterone (DHT)], the ratio of DHT to total testosterone (DHT:testosterone ratio), and SHBG in these four ethnic groups. We also assessed correlations between concentrations of these measures with age, body size, physical activity, and other personal characteristics, and we evaluated ethnic differences in concentrations of androgens and SHBG after adjusting for these characteristics. In each of the four ethnic groups, concentrations of free and bioavailable testosterone declined with age, whereas SHBG concentrations increased with age. Age-adjusted concentrations of all androgen measures and SHBG decreased with increasing levels of Quetelet's index. After adjustment for age and Quetelet's index, androgens and SHBG showed no clear and consistent relationships to physical activity, alcohol consumption, or tobacco use. DHT:testosterone ratio was higher in men reporting a history of benign prostate disease than in men without such a history, and higher in vasectomized men than in nonvasectomized men. SHBG concentrations were higher in men reporting one or more first-degree relatives with prostate cancer than in men without such a family history. After adjustment for age and Quetelet's index, the levels of total and bioavailable testosterone were highest in Asian-Americans, intermediate in African-Americans, and lowest in whites. However, the DHT:testosterone ratio was highest in African-Americans, intermediate in whites, and lowest in Asian-Americans, corresponding to the respective incidence rates in these groups and providing indirect evidence for ethnic differences in 5alpha-reductase enzyme activity.