PURPOSE: To examine the prevalence of osteopenia and/or osteoporosis among African Americans with early rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and to assess the effect of using race/ethnicity-specific normative data. METHODS: Bone mineral density (BMD) of the hip and spine was assessed in African Americans with early RA. To examine the impact of using different normative data on disease classification, we calculated two sets of T scores, the first using sex-matched reference data from Caucasians and the second using data from African Americans. Osteoporosis was defined as a BMD at either site > or =2.5 SD below the young adult mean. Osteopenia was defined as a BMD > or =1 SD and <2.5 SD below this mean. RESULTS: Using Caucasian referent data, 33% (n=48) of patients had osteopenia or worse (n=48, 32.9%) and 5% (n=8) were osteoporotic. With the use of African-American normative data, 55% (n=94) were osteopenic or worse, and 16% (n=27) were osteoporotic. CONCLUSION: African Americans with RA are at risk of osteopenia and/or osteoporosis. Different diagnostic classifications may occur in this population based solely on the normative data used for assessing fracture risk. These results underscore the need for a standardized approach in defining osteopenia and osteoporosis in African Americans.