The major histocompatibility complex-unrestricted, cell-mediated, constitutive anti-tumor cytotoxic function of natural killer cells is highly preserved in healthy elderly. A study of the dynamics of expression of natural killer cell-associated phenotypes during immunosenescence shows that selective, bidirectional, and disproportionate changes in certain natural killer cell subset number and ratio take place during aging. The mean natural killer cell subset ratio (%CD16+CD57+ over %CD56+CD57-) gradually increases from a young adult level of 0.7 to 4.6 with advancing age predominantly due to a tripling of %CD16+57+ cells as opposed to a moderate decrease (-54%) in %CD56+57- phenotype. The parallel increase in natural killer phenotype ratio and cytotoxic activity might represent a shift in the maturity status of these cells. Based on these findings, a model of natural killer cell immunosenescence is proposed. It is concluded that not all immunosenescent changes need be detrimental; some may even improve the potential for survival and represent an adaptational immunosenescent change.