Published guidelines recommend spirometry to accurately diagnose chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, even spirometry-based COPD prevalence estimates can vary widely. We compared properties of several spirometry-based COPD definitions using data from the international Burden of Obstructive Lung Disease (BOLD)study. 14 sites recruited population-based samples of adults aged > or =40 yrs. Procedures included standardised questionnaires and post-bronchodilator spirometry. 10,001 individuals provided usable data. Use of the lower limit of normal (LLN) forced expiratory volume in 1 s (FEV(1)) to forced vital capacity (FVC) ratio reduced the age-related increases in COPD prevalence that are seen among healthy never-smokers when using the fixed ratio criterion (FEV(1)/FVC <0.7) recommended by the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. The added requirement of an FEV(1) either <80% predicted or below the LLN further reduced age-related increases and also led to the least site-to-site variability in prevalence estimates after adjusting for potential confounders. Use of the FEV(1)/FEV(6) ratio in place of the FEV(1)/FVC yielded similar prevalence estimates. Use of the FEV(1)/FVC<LLN criterion instead of the FEV(1)/FVC <0.7 should minimise known age biases and better reflect clinically significant irreversible airflow limitation. Our study also supports the use of the FEV(1)/FEV(6) as a practical substitute for the FEV(1)/FVC.