Women experience a decline in fertility that precedes the menopause by several years. Previous studies have demonstrated a monotropic rise in FSH associated with reproductive aging: however, the mechanism of this rise and its role in the aging process are poorly understood. The purpose of this study was to characterize ovarian follicular development and ovarian hormone secretion in older reproductive age women. Sixteen women, aged 40-45 yr, with regular ovulatory cycles were studied. The control group consisted of 12 ovulatory women, aged 20-25 yr. Serum obtained by daily blood sampling was analyzed for FSH, LH, estradiol (E), progesterone, and inhibin (Monash polyclonal assay). Follicle growth and ovulation were documented by transvaginal ultrasound. Older women had significantly higher levels of FSH throughout the menstrual cycle. E, progesterone, LH, and inhibin levels did not differ between the two age groups when compared relative to the day of the LH surge. Ultrasound revealed normal growth, size, and collapse of a dominant follicle in all subjects. Older women had significantly shorter follicular phase length associated with an early acute rise in follicular phase E, reflecting accelerated development of a dominant follicle. We conclude that older reproductive age women have accelerated development of a dominant follicle in the presence of the monotropic FSH rise. This is manifested as a shortened follicular phase and elevated follicular phase E. The fact that ovarian steroid and inhibin secretion were similar to those in the younger women suggests that elevated FSH in women of advanced reproductive age may represent a primary neuroendocrine change associated with reproductive aging.