We report a 4-year randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial in 236 normal postmenopausal women (mean age +/- SE, 66.3+/-0.2 years) who were randomized to a calcium (1600 mg/day as the citrate) or placebo group. The women were seen every 6 months; 177 completed the trial. Net percentage changes in each group are given relative to baseline. The differences in net percentage changes (calcium group minus placebo group) in medians were: for lumbar spine bone density, 2.0% (p < 0.001) at year 1 and 0.3% (not significant) at year 4; for proximal femur bone density, 1.3% (p = 0.003) at year 1 and 1.3% (p = 0.015) at year 4; and for total body bone mineral, 0.4% (p = 0.002) at year 1 and 0.9% (p = 0.017) at year 4. Similar differences at year 4 were: -18.9% (p = 0.002) for parathyroid hormone (PTH), -11.9% (p = 0.026) for serum osteocalcin, and -32.2% (p = 0.003) for urine free pyridinoline. We conclude that long-term administration of calcium supplements to elderly women partially reverses age-related increases in serum PTH level and bone resorption and decreases bone loss. However, the effects on bone loss were weaker than those reported for estrogen, bisphosphonates, or calcitonin therapy, indicating that calcium supplements alone cannot substitute for these in treating established osteoporosis. Nonetheless, because of their safety, high tolerance, and low expense, calcium supplements may be a useful preventive measure for elderly postmenopausal women whose bone mineral density values are normal for their age.