Elderly men and women lose muscle mass and strength with increasing age. Decreased physical activity, hormones, malnutrition and chronic disease have been identified as factors contributing to this loss. There are few data, however, for their multivariate associations with muscle mass and strength. This study analyzes these associations in a cross-sectional sample of elderly people from the New Mexico Aging Process Study. Data collected in 1994 for 121 male and 180 female volunteers aged 65-97 years of age enrolled in The New Mexico Aging Process Study were analyzed. Body composition was measured using dual energy X-ray absorptiometry; dietary intake from 3 day food records; usual physical activity by questionnaire; health status from annual physical examinations; and serum testosterone, estrone, sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG), and insulin-like growth factor (IGF1) from radioimmunoassays of fasting blood samples. Statistical analyses included partial correlation and stepwise multiple regression. The muscle mass and strength (adjusted for knee height) decreased with increasing age in both sexes. The muscle mass was significantly associated with serum free-testosterone, physical activity, cardiovascular disease, and IGF1 in the men. In the women, the muscle mass was significantly associated with total fat mass and physical activity. Age was not associated significantly with muscle mass after controlling for these variables. Grip strength was associated with age independent of muscle mass in both sexes. Estrogen (endogenous and exogenous) was not associated with muscle mass or strength in women. Age-related loss of muscle mass and strength occurs in relatively healthy, well-nourished elderly men and women and has a multifactorial basis. Sex hormone status is an important factor in men but not in women. Physical activity is an important predictor of muscle mass in both sexes.