Morbidity and mortality due to infectious disease is greater in the elderly than in the young, at least partly because of age-associated decreased immune competence, which renders individuals more susceptible to pathogens. This susceptibility is particularly evident for novel infectious agents such as in severe acute respiratory syndrome but is also all too apparent for common pathogens such as influenza. Many years ago, it was noted that the elderly possessed oligoclonal expansions of T cells, especially of CD8(+) cells. At the same time, it was established that cytomegalovirus (CMV) seropositivity was associated with many of the same phenotypic and functional alterations to T-cell immunity that were being reported as biomarkers associated with aging. It was discovered that CMV was the prime driving force behind most of the oligoclonal expansions and altered phenotypes and functions of CD8 cells. Independently, longitudinal studies of a free-living population of the very old in Sweden over the past decade have led to the emerging concept of an 'immune risk phenotype' (IRP), predicting mortality, which was itself found to be associated with CMV seropositivity. These findings support our hypothesis that the manner in which CMV and the host immune system interact is critical in determining the IRP and hence is predictive of mortality. In this sense, then, we suggest that immunosenescence is contagious.