Muscle mass decreases with age, leading to "sarcopenia," or low relative muscle mass, in elderly people. Sarcopenia is believed to be associated with metabolic, physiologic, and functional impairments and disability. Methods of estimating the prevalence of sarcopenia and its associated risks in elderly populations are lacking. Data from a population-based survey of 883 elderly Hispanic and non-Hispanic white men and women living in New Mexico (the New Mexico Elder Health Survey, 1993-1995) were analyzed to develop a method for estimating the prevalence of sarcopenia. An anthropometric equation for predicting appendicular skeletal muscle mass was developed from a random subsample (n = 199) of participants and was extended to the total sample. Sarcopenia was defined as appendicular skeletal muscle mass (kg)/height2 (m2) being less than two standard deviations below the mean of a young reference group. Prevalences increased from 13-24% in persons under 70 years of age to >50% in persons over 80 years of age, and were slightly greater in Hispanics than in non-Hispanic whites. Sarcopenia was significantly associated with self-reported physical disability in both men and women, independent of ethnicity, age, morbidity, obesity, income, and health behaviors. This study provides some of the first estimates of the extent of the public health problem posed by sarcopenia.