The effect of 12-month dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) replacement therapy has been evaluated in 14 60- to 70-yr-old women who received daily applications of a 10% DHEA cream. Vaginal epithelium maturation was stimulated by DHEA administration in 8 of 10 women who had a maturation value of zero at the onset of therapy, whereas a stimulatory effect was also seen in all three women who had an intermediate vaginal maturation index before therapy. The estrogenic effect of DHEA observed in the vagina was not observed in the endometrium, which remained atrophic in all women. Most interesting, the bone mineral density significantly increased at the hip from 0.744 +/- 0.021 to 0.759 +/- 0.025 g/cm2 after 12 months of treatment (P < 0.05). These changes in bone mineral density were associated with a significant 20.0% decrease (P < 0.01) in plasma bone alkaline phosphatase and a 28% decrease in the urinary hydroxyproline/creatinine ratio. A 2.1-fold increase over the control value (P < 0.01) in plasma osteocalcin was concomitantly observed. The present data describe for the first time a series of medically important beneficial effects of DHEA therapy in postmenopausal women through transformation of the precursor steroid DHEA into androgens and/or estrogens in specific peripheral intracrine tissues without significant adverse effects. The stimulatory effect on the vaginal epithelium in the absence of stimulation of the endometrium is of particular interest because it eliminates the need for progestin replacement therapy. On the other hand, the stimulatory effect on bone mineral density accompanied by an increase in serum osteocalcin, a marker of bone formation, suggests stimulation of bone formation by the androgenic action of DHEA, a finding of particular interest for both the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis.