Osteoporosis and fractures are increasingly recognized in children and adults with cystic fibrosis. To investigate the prevalence and pathogenesis of osteoporosis and low bone mass in adults with advanced pulmonary disease due to cystic fibrosis, we examined the relationships between bone mineral density (BMD), anthropomorphic variables, pulmonary status, glucocorticoid therapy, and vitamin D concentrations. BMD of the lumbar spine, hip, and proximal radius was measured by dual energy X-ray absorptiometry in 30 white adults (16 women), age 30 +/- 2 yr (mean +/- SEM). Compared with a normal control population, the patients had significantly reduced BMD at the lumbar spine (17 +/- 3%), total hip and femoral neck (24 +/- 3% and 20 +/- 4%, respectively). The radius was significantly less demineralized (4 +/- 2%; p <= 0.003) than the other sites. Moreover, only 21% of patients with cystic fibrosis had normal BMD (T score > -1.0) at the lumbar spine, 23% at the hip sites, and 39% at the radius. Age, weight, and body mass index (BMI) were most strongly correlated with bone mass, whereas glucocorticoid therapy and pulmonary function were not predictive. Despite oral vitamin D (400 to 800 IU daily), the mean serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25-OHD) concentration was at the low end of the normal range (16 +/- 2 ng/ml; normal 10 to 52 ng/ml); 8 of 20 patients (40%) had frankly low (<= 10 ng/ml) levels. BMD was significantly lower in patients with low 25-OHD concentrations at the lumbar spine (0.774 +/- 0.02 versus 0.913 +/- 0.04 g/cm2; p = 0.01) and total hip (0.648 +/- 0.04 versus 0.811 +/- 0.04 g/cm2; p = 0.01). Vertebral fractures were present in 19% of subjects and 41% had a confirmed history of previous fracture. In summary, osteoporosis, low bone mass, and fractures are common in adults with advanced cystic fibrosis lung disease. Despite oral supplements, vitamin D deficiency is also common and is associated with more severe demineralization at the lumbar spine and hip. We conclude that the widespread practice of oral supplementation with 400 to 800 units of vitamin D is ineffective in maintaining normal vitamin D stores in many patients with cystic fibrosis. To ensure adequacy of vitamin D stores, measurement of serum 25-OHD should be included in the routine management of patients with cystic fibrosis.