This study determined whether prior habituation to water immersion would ameliorate age-related deficits in learning and memory in a swim task. Aged (22 months) and young adult (3 months) rats were immersed in water (30 degrees C) for 15 min on each of 28 consecutive days before training in the swim task. Additional groups of age-matched animals served as handled controls. Training on a spatial discrimination version of the water task was conducted over 5 days with two trials per day (1-h intertrial interval). A probe trial was substituted for the last trial on the fifth day to assess the rats' use of spatial information. Three days later, rats received cue discrimination training to find a visible platform. In the spatial task, prior habituation to water immersion ameliorated deficits in acquisition within each day (i.e., at a 1-h intertrial interval) but not across days (at 24 h). The results obtained with the 24-h interval confirm the rapid forgetting characteristic of aged rats in many tasks. The stress-habituation procedures reduced age-related deficits seen on the probe trial and on cue discrimination training. These findings indicate that several aspects of age-related impairments in the swim task, often attributed to primary age-related deficits in learning and memory processes per se, may instead be secondary to age-related differences in stress responses to water immersion.