Aging has been associated with diminished lung function and increased susceptibility to lung infection. To determine whether changes suggestive of immune dysregulation and inflammation appear in the lungs of clinically normal individuals as a function of advancing age, we performed bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) on discontinuous age groups (20-36, 45-55, and 65-78 yr old) of clinically normal volunteer subjects. We measured immunoglobulin (IgG, IgA, IgM), albumin, interleukin-6 (IL-6), and interleukin-10 concentrations in BAL fluid. Bronchoalveolar cell profiles, cell surface antigen expression, and superoxide anion production were also measured. A significant increase in total cell concentration, neutrophils, and BAL immunoglobulin content was observed in the oldest age group compared with the youngest age group. Mean lymphocyte subset (CD4+/CD8+) ratios were significantly increased in blood (2.6 +/- 0.4 versus 1.6 +/- 0.1; p<0.03) and to a greater degree in BAL (4.8 +/- 1.0 versus 1.9 +/- 0.2; p<0.01) for the oldest versus youngest age groups. Similarly, BAL-derived cells displayed significantly increased phorbol myristate acetate-stimulated release of superoxide anion (8.8 +/- 1.3 versus 4.5 +/- 0.7 nmol/5 x 10 5 cells/h; p<0.01) for the oldest versus youngest subject group, and mean BAL IL-6 concentrations were significantly elevated in the oldest age group (0.86 +/- 0.13 ng/ml) compared with the youngest age group (0.53 +/- 0.03 ng/ml; p<0.01). Our observations suggest that altered inflammatory cell profiles and low-grade inflammation exist in the lower respiratory tracts of many asymptomatic, clinically normal volunteers of advanced age.