Health-related quality of life (QOL) is an important measure of how disease affects patients' lives. Dialysis patients have decreased QOL relative to healthy controls. Little is known about QOL in patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD) before renal replacement therapy. The Medical Outcomes Study Short Form-36 (SF-36), a standard QOL instrument, was used to evaluate 634 patients (mean glomerular filtration rate [GFR], 23.6 +/- 9.6 mL/min/1.73 m2 [0.39 +/- 0.16 mL/s/1.73 m2]) enrolled in a 4-center, prospective, observational study of CKD. SF-36 scores in these patients were compared with those in a prevalent cohort of hemodialysis (HD) patients and healthy controls (both from historical data). QOL data also were analyzed for correlations with GFR and albumin and hemoglobin levels in multivariable analyses. Patients with CKD had higher SF-36 scores than a large cohort of HD patients (P < 0.0001 for 8 scales and 2 summary scales), but lower scores than those reported for the US adult population (P < 0.0001 for 7 of 8 scales and 1 of 2 summary scales). Patients with CKD stage 4 had lower QOL scores than patients with CKD stage 5, although differences were not significant. Hemoglobin level was associated positively with higher mental and physical QOL scores (P < 0.05) in all individual and component scales except Pain. SF-36 scores were higher in this CKD cohort compared with HD patients, but lower than in healthy controls. GFR was not significantly associated with QOL. Hemoglobin level predicted both physical and mental domains of the SF-36. Longitudinal studies are needed to define at-risk periods for decreases in QOL during progression of CKD.