Eight women with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) with low creatinine clearance rate (CCR) and normal urinary albumin excretion (UAE) were compared with three other groups of diabetic women: 19 with normal creatinine clearance rate (CCR) and UAE, 7 with normal CCR and microalbuminuria, and 7 with low CCR and microalbuminuria. The four groups were similar in age, duration of diabetes, HbA1, incidence of urinary tract infection, prevalence of bladder neuropathy, and urinary urea nitrogen excretion rate. The prevalence of hypertension was similar among the groups, although mean arterial pressure was higher in the low CCR and microalbuminuria group. Renal area index was lower in the low CCR and normal UAE groups than in the other groups of diabetic patients, but was not different from normal. Morphometric measures of mesangial expansion and estimates of arteriolar hyalinosis and global glomerulosclerosis were increased to a similar degree in the low CCR and normal UAE, normal CCR and microalbuminuria, and low CCR and microalbuminuria groups compared with the group without abnormalities of renal function. Therefore, it is likely that diabetic glomerulopathy is, at least in part, responsible for the loss of glomerular filtration rate seen in the low CCR and normal UAE patients. Thus, the definition of incipient nephropathy may have to be expanded beyond the concept of microalbuminuria if longitudinal study of such patients reveals an Increased risk of the subsequent development of overt nephropathy. Finally, screening for diabetic kidney disease among IDDM patients should include determination of glomerular filtration rate and measurement of UAE and blood pressure, especially among women.