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OBJECTIVE: To determine the pattern of accumulation of damage in an inception cohort of patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) followed yearly for at least 15 years, and to identify damage items that might be related to corticosteroid therapy. METHODS: An inception cohort was identified from among patients with SLE followed prospectively in the University of Toronto Lupus Clinic. Only patients who had at least yearly evaluations and were followed for at least 15 years were included. Using the SLICC/ACR damage index (SDI) accumulated damage was calculated at yearly intervals. Each new organ system involved was designated as either definitely, possibly, or not at all related to corticosteroid therapy. RESULTS: Of the 73 patients, 85% were women and 87.7% were Caucasian. Their mean age at diagnosis was 34.9 years. The mean (range) SLEDAI at presentation was 11.9 (0-37). Prednisone was used by 87.7% of the patients (mean maximum dose 37.7 mg/day, mean cumulative dose 36.8 g) for a mean of 117.1 months. Antimalarial drugs were used by 70% of the patients and 50% were taking immunosuppressive agents. The mean SDI for the whole cohort increased over time from 0.33 (0.89) during the first year to 1.90 (1.99) at 15 years. A significant proportion of the damage both early and late could be attributed to corticosteroid therapy, and this damage accumulated over time such that it constituted most of the damage at 15 years. CONCLUSION: While the overall accrual of damage is gradual, the specific systems demonstrate varying patterns of damage accrual.