Old age is associated with a deficient recovery from stroke, but the cellular mechanisms underlying such phenomena are poorly understood. To address this issue, focal cerebral ischemia was produced by reversible occlusion of the right middle cerebral artery in 3- and 20-month-old male Sprague-Dawley rats. Aged rats showed a delayed and suboptimal functional recovery in the post-stroke period. Using BrdU-labeling, quantitative immunohistochemistry and 3-D reconstruction of confocal images, we found that aged rats are predisposed to rapidly develop an infarct within the first few days after ischemia. The emergence of the necrotic zone is associated with a high rate of cellular degeneration, premature accumulation of proliferating BrdU-positive cells that appear to emanate from capillaries in the infarcted area, and a large number of apoptotic cells. With double labeling techniques, we were able to identify, for the first time, over 60% of BrdU-positive cells either as reactive microglia (45%), oligodendrocyte progenitors (17%), astrocytes (23%), CD8+ lymphocytes (4%), or apoptotic cells (<1%). Paradoxically, despite a robust reactive phenotype of microglia and astrocytes in aged rats, at 1-week post-stroke, the number of proliferating microglia and astrocytes was lower in aged rats than in young rats. Our data indicate that aging is associated with rapid infarct development and a poor prognosis for full recovery from stroke that is correlated with premature cellular proliferation and increased cellular degeneration and apoptosis in the infarcted area.