It was recently demonstrated that calcium and vitamin D supplements were capable of decreasing the incidence of hip fractures in institutionalized elderly subjects through a reduction of senile secondary hyperparathyroidism. As there are no appropriate data to recommend such a supplement to the elderly living at home, the aim of this study was to determine the incidence of senile secondary hyperparathyroidism in old French women from the general community, its relation to vitamin D status, and its contribution to bone turnover. Four hundred and forty women, aged 75-90 yr, were randomly selected from the general community by mailing from electoral listing in 5 French cities whose latitude varies from 49 degrees 9N to 43 degrees 6N. At the end of the winter, with previous hip fractures or those who were institutionalized were excluded. The results obtained in these women were compared to those obtained in 59 institutionalized old women and 54 younger healthy women. In the five cities for the women living at home, we found a mean PTH value greater than that obtained in young women (63 +/- 28 vs. 43 +/- 15 pg/ml; P = 0.001), but lower that that found in institutionalized women (76 +/- 49 pg/mL; P = 0.05). The mean 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25OHD) level was not different in subjects from the 5 cities, but in all of them it was significantly greater than that found in 59 institutionalized women (42.5 +/- 25.0 vs. 15.5 +/- 6.5 nmol/L; P = 0.0001) but lower than that in young adults (P < 0.001). The main determinants of PTH were in equal ratio, i.e. age (r = 0.19; P < 0.001), 25OHD, and, to a lesser degree, creatinine clearance (r = 0.10; P = 0.03). For 25OHD, the main determinant was the personal outdoor score and, to a lesser extent, the amount of daily sunlight in the city. The mean values of biochemical markers of bone turnover, bone alkaline phosphatase, osteocalcin, and Crosslaps, were significantly increased compared with the results obtained in young women, and significant negative correlations were found between these markers and hip bone mineral density. These results show that vitamin D status of a French aged population in good health and living at home depends mainly on lifestyle. Like institutionalized women, old women living at home exhibit clear evidence of senile hyperparathyroidism in the winter, secondary in part to a reduced 25OHD level and associated with biological signs of increased bone turnover. The maintenance of PTH within the normal range for healthy adults by vitamin D and calcium treatment might constitute an approach for the prevention of bone loss in the entire aged population.