The aim of this study was to compare changes in periodontal status in a Swedish population over a period of 20 years. Cross-sectional studies were carried out in Jönköping County in 1973, 1983, and 1993. Individuals were randomly selected from the following age groups: 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, and 70 years. A total of 600 individuals were examined in 1973, 597 in 1983, and 584 in 1993. The number of dentate individuals was 537 in 1973, 550 in 1983, and 552 in 1993. Based on clinical data and full mouth intra-oral radiographs, all individuals were classified into 5 groups according to the severity of the periodontal disease experience. Individuals were classified as having a healthy periodontium (group 1), gingivitis without signs of alveolar bone loss (group 2), moderate alveolar bone loss not exceeding 1/3 of the normal alveolar bone height (group 3), severe alveolar bone loss ranging between 1/3 and 2/3 of the normal alveolar bone height (group 4), or alveolar bone loss exceeding 2/3 of the normal bone height and angular bony defects and/or furcation defects (group 5). During these 20 years, the number of individuals in groups 1 and 2 increased from 49% in 1973 to 60% in 1993. In addition, there was a decrease in the number of individuals in group 3, the group with moderate periodontal bone loss. Groups 4 and 5 comprised 13% of the population and showed no change in general between 1983 and 1993. The individuals comprising these groups in 1993, however, had more teeth than those who comprised these groups in 1983; on the average, the individuals in disease group 4 had 4 more teeth and those in disease group 5, 2 more teeth per subject. In 1973, these 2 groups were considerably smaller, probably because of wider indications for tooth extractions and fewer possibilities for periodontal care which meant that many of these individuals had become edentulous and were not placed in a group. Individuals in groups 3, 4, and 5 were subdivided according to the number of surfaces (%) with gingivitis and periodontal pockets (> or =4 mm). In 1993, 20%, 42%. and 67% of the individuals in groups 3, 4, and 5 respectively were classified as diseased and in need of periodontal therapy with >20% bleeding sites and >10% sites with periodontal pockets > or =4 mm. In conclusion, an increase in the number of individuals with no marginal bone loss and a decrease in the number of individuals with moderate alveolar bone loss can be seen. The prevalence of individuals in the severe periodontal disease groups (4, 5) was unchanged during the last 10 years; however, the number of teeth per subject increased.