A variety of biochemical markers of bone turnover that assess bone formation or resorption are now available for research and clinical application. However, our understanding of the usual pattern of these measures over age in the general population is limited. Therefore, values of two bone formation markers, serum osteocalcin (Oc) and bone specific alkaline phosphatase (bone ALP), were compared by age, gender, and race or ethnicity using serum obtained from a subsample of blacks, whites, and Mexican Americans from the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). In all racial and ethnic groups, mean values of both serum Oc and bone ALP were lower in women than in men <50 years old. In individuals > or =50 years of age, Oc was significantly higher in women than in men. When analyzed in these two broad age groups, Oc was lower in older black men than in white or Mexican American men, but bone ALP was not different among the groups. In women, Oc levels tended to be lower in the black women than in white or Mexican American women. In contrast, bone ALP tended to be lower in white women than in black or Mexican American women. On the other hand, when analyzed by decade, patterns differed between the two markers in both men and women. In women, both Oc and bone ALP rose postmenopausally. However, bone ALP plateaued in the sixth through eighth decades, whereas Oc levels tended to increase further. In men, Oc was highest in the 20-29 year age group, declined and stabilized, then increased again in the seventh decade. In contrast, mean bone ALP did not differ by decade in men. Our data document differences in levels of circulating Oc and bone ALP by age, gender, and race/ethnicity. The age patterns reflected by the two markers are not concordant and distinctions are most evident in the latter decades. Our findings suggest that the specific osteoblast activity reflected by these markers responds differently to the physiologic changes that occur later in life.