Throughout life, the T cell system adapts to shifting resources and demands, resulting in a fundamentally restructured immune system in older individuals. Here we review the cellular and molecular features of an aged immune system and discuss the trade-offs inherent to these adaptive mechanisms. Processes include homeostatic proliferation that maintains compartment size at the expense of partial loss in stemness and incomplete differentiation and the activation of negative regulatory programs, which constrain effector T cell expansion and prevent increasing oligoclonality but also interfere with memory cell generation. We propose that immune failure occurs when adaptive strategies developed by the aging T cell system fail and also discuss how, in some settings, the programs associated with T cell aging culminates in a maladaptive response that directly contributes to chronic inflammatory disease.
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