Osteoblasts arise from partially differentiated osteogenic progenitor cells (OPCs) which in turn arise from undifferentiated marrow stromal mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). It has been postulated that age-related defects in osteoblast number and function may be due to quantitative and qualitative stem cell defects. To examine this possibility, we compared osteogenic stem cell number and in vitro function in marrow cells from 4-month-old and 24-month-old male BALB/c mice. Histologic studies demonstrated that these mice undergo age-related bone loss resembling that seen in humans. In primary MSC cultures grown in media supplemented with 10 nM dexamethasone, cultures from older animals yielded an average of 41% fewer OPC colonies per given number of marrow cells plated (p < 0.001). This implies that for a given number of marrow cells there are fewer stem cells with osteogenic potential in older animals than there are in younger animals. The basal proliferative rate in cultures from older animals, as measured by 3H-thymidine uptake, was more than three times that observed in cultures from young animals (p < 0.005). However, the increase in proliferative response to serum stimulation was 10-fold in the younger cultures (p <0.001) and insignificant (p <0.4) in the older cultures. Colonies in both age groups became alkaline phosphatase positive at the same rate, and virtually all colonies were positive after 12 days of culture. Cultures from both age groups produced abundant type I collagen. These studies suggest that defects in the number and proliferative potential of MSCs may underlie age-related defects in osteoblast number and function.