Current models for lectin-induced T cell proliferation suggest that activation of protein kinase C (PK-C) and elevation of cytoplasmic Ca2+ may both play important roles in the earliest phases of signal transduction. To learn more about the relative inability of T cells from old mice to proliferate in response to mitogenic stimuli, we attempted to stimulate T cells by the synergistic effects of a PK-C activator, phorbol myristate acetate (PMA), and the calcium ionophore ionomycin. T cells from young mice respond as well to optimal combinations of these agents as they do to the strong polyclonal activator Con A, but T cells from old mice respond much better to PMA plus ionomycin than they do to Con A. This result suggests that an inability to transduce the signal supplied by extracellular ligands into the intracellular signals represented by Ca2+ and PK-C activators may underlie the age-associated loss of T cell reactivity. We also found evidence for a second defect in old T cells related to their response to elevated intracellular Ca2+: old T cells, compared with young, required higher levels of ionomycin for maximal proliferation.