We have analyzed the patterns of induced cytokine gene expression and cell cycle activity by CD4+ cells from mice, and have examined how these response patterns change during the aging process. CD4+ cells were isolated from spleens of young adult and old C57BL/6NNia mice and were stimulated in vitro with plate-bound anti-CD3 epsilon mAb. The cells were then assessed over time for the capacity to accumulate transcripts for IL-1 alpha, IL-1 beta, IL-2, IL-3, IL-4, IL-5, IL-6, IFN-gamma, TNF-alpha, and TNF-beta; to secrete IL-2, IL-3, IL-4, IL-5, IL-6, and IFN-gamma; and to progress through S phase. Before the first major cell division in culture (< 32 h), stimulated CD4+ cells of the old group contained similar peak levels of IL-2, TNF-alpha, and TNF-beta transcripts relative to young adult controls, whereas IL-3, IL-4, IL-5, and IFN-gamma transcripts accumulated to significantly higher peak levels in the old group. These findings were consistent with the patterns of cytokine secretion later in culture (24 to 72 h): the peak IL-2 levels were similar between age groups, but the old group exhibited an enhanced capacity to release IL-3, IL-4, IL-5, and IFN-gamma. In contrast, CD4+ cells of the young group were superior in the hyper-expression of the housekeeping gene, rpL32, before cell division and in the levels of S phase activity throughout 3-day cultures. Similar analyses of CD4+ cells from mice of intermediate ages showed that the alterations in cytokine profiles occurred gradually from young adulthood to old age, whereas the reductions in proliferative capacity were late life changes. Consistent with previous reports, we found that the splenic CD4+ cell group also underwent a progressive, age-dependent increase in the proportions of cells expressing high levels of membrane CD44 (a phenotype associated with memory or effector cells). Moreover, the analysis of IL-3, IL-5, and IFN-gamma production by isolated CD4+CD44lo and CD4+CD44hi cells revealed that the capacity to produce these cytokines segregated predominantly with the CD44hi subset, regardless of donor age. Taken together, our data suggest that gradual age-associated shifts in the subset composition of the splenic CD4+ cell pool underlie progressive changes in the patterns of cytokine gene expression by this cell group.