Aged persons frequently manifest declining parameters of those immune functions which protect the young against disease. Longitudinal studies are beginning to show that number, type and function of T cells may be associated with longevity, morbidity and mortality in free-living elderly humans. Multi-faceted alterations in the ability of T cells from old donors to respond to stimulation are being dissected, and pathways which are compromized in the elderly compared to the young are being defined. Successful immune responses depend upon waves of rapid and extensive clonal expansion to combat primary infection, followed by death of most T cells, survival of memory cells and their later reactivation and further expansion. This implies that the finite replicative potential of T cells might impose a critical limiting factor on the maintenance of immune responses in the face of thymic involution and drastically reduced capacity to generate new naive T cells. This type of 'clonal exhaustion' can readily be studied in vitro using human T cell clones and the findings can be applied to the in vivo situation. Understanding the processes of replicative senescence in such in vitro models may shed light not only on some of the underlying mechanisms of immunosenescence but also in situations of chronic antigenic stimulation in vivo. Moreover, it might begin to indicate how the system could be manipulated on the one hand to prevent or reverse T cell senescence without nullifying the control mechanisms of tumor suppression, and on the other hand, to reconstitute possibly faulty suppression, for example in autoimmune disease.