Little is known about the prevalence of metabolic bone disease among adults with mental retardation (now known as learning disability), although they may be at increased risk of fractures. Broadband-ultrasound attenuation (BUA) and velocity-of-sound (VOS) measurements were performed on the left heel of 170 patients in a large hospital for adults with mental retardation. For 108 of these patients, age- and gender-matched control subjects were recruited from the local community, who also underwent BUA and VOS measurements. The mean age of matched pairs of patients and control subjects was 54 (range 32-83) years for men and 53 (range 27-82) years for women. Mean +/- SEM BUA for male patients was 52 +/- 4 dB/MHz and 89 +/- 2 for control subjects, whereas for female patients it was 34 +/- 3 dB/MHz and 68 +/- 2 for control subjects. VOS was 1603 +/- 7 m/sec for male patients and 1649 +/- 5 for control subjects, and 1573 +/- 7 m/sec for female patients and 1623 +/- 5 for control subjects. All differences between patients and control subjects were significant (p < 0.005). Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry bone mineral density (BMD) measurements were also performed in seven patients with BUA less than 50 dB/MHz, four of whom were found to have a lumbar spine or femoral neck BMD more than 2.5 SD below the mean value for young adults. This study shows that patients with mental retardation have a marked reduction in BUA and VOS measurements at the heel, compared with age-matched control subjects. There is a need to identify the major causes of low bone mass in this group, as there may be potentially avoidable risk factors for osteoporosis, such as vitamin D deficiency and hypogonadism.