In this study, the changes in some of the cellular components of the immune system and the activity of the cytokine interleukin 2, important for immune activation and lymphocyte proliferation, were measured in a large cross-sectional study of all age groups including octogenarian and nonagenarian subjects. In 206 apparently well community-living subjects, the absolute lymphocyte count and T and B cell numbers fell a little in old and very old subjects. Within the T cell compartment, helper/inducer CD4+ T cells, together with their subsets identified as 'naive' (CD4+/CD45RA+) and 'memory' (CD4+/CD45RO+) cells, also showed a decline with increased age. The suppressor/cytotoxic CD8+ subset showed no age-related change. The levels of the cytokine interleukin 2 were very low in octogenarian and nonagenarian subjects, while the soluble interleukin 2 receptor levels increased with increasing age. The interleukin 2 levels were associated with number and percentage of the 'memory' (CD4+/CD45RO+) subset of T cells which mediates the host response to previously met antigens. Since the interleukin 2 values were very low in the oldest groups and were associated with a reduced 'memory' (CD4+/CD45RO+) compartment, this suggests a possible mechanism of why the very elderly subject is more susceptible to morbidity and mortality from infectious or other agents.