Proper diagnostic distinction of bone marrow failure syndromes can often be challenging. In particular, for older patients with idiopathic aplastic anemia (AA), differential diagnosis includes myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), which can atypically present in a hypocellular form. In addition to blasts and overt dysplasia, the presence of chromosomal abnormalities and a spectrum of somatic mutations may be revealing. Both clonal cytogenetic aberrations and somatic mutations most typically correspond to a clonal myelodysplasia, but clonal somatic mutations have also recently been found in AA. True driver myeloid mutations are uncommon in AA. Marrow hypocellularity in AA and occasionally in MDS patients points toward a similar immune mechanism responsible for deficient blood cell production and indicates that cytopenias in early hypocellular MDS might be treated with immunosuppressive modalities. Primary hypocellular MDS has to be distinguished from post-AA secondary MDS, most commonly associated with del7/7q. Post-AA MDS evolves at the rate of about 10% in 10 years, but recent observations suggest that widespread use of eltrombopag may influence the risk of progression to MDS. This complication likely represents a clonal escape, with founder hits occurring early on in the course of AA. A similar mechanism operates in the evolution of paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH) in AA patients, but PNH clones are rarely encountered in primary MDS.