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ageing changes in the nervous system

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Brain and spinal cord

Alternative Names
age-related changes in the nervous system

Ageing causes normal changes in the nervous system that can affect physical and mental abilities.

What is the information for this topic?
The nervous system has two parts. The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system. The peripheral nervous system is the other part. This consists of nerves that link the spinal cord and brain to the rest of the body, such as the legs, to allow it to work and move.

When a nerve cell in the central nervous system dies, it is not usually replaced. As cells die normally with age, the brain weight gradually decreases. Deposits of fat and other material also occur inside brain cells. These each result in a gradual loss of function. The speed of nerve impulses has been shown to slow down with age. This can gradually slow people's reflexes and their responses. There is a normal, slow decline in the ability of people to learn new skills. A slow decline in verbal ability and short-term memory also occur with age. Different people lose these abilities at different rates.

Every nerve cell lost does not mean a definite loss of function. It is clear that some people do have changes in nerves and brain tissue that slow thinking, memory and physical activities. But not everyone who has a fairly large loss of brain tissue seems to be affected. Other people lose very little brain tissue but have severe mental changes. There is much about ageing and the nervous system that experts do not yet know.

Confusion, dementia and severe memory loss are not a normal part of the ageing process. Many times, severe problems in thinking and behaviour are due to medical problems, such as:
  • Alzheimer's disease.
  • Parkinson's Disease.
  • kidney, liver or heart disease.
  • a stroke.
  • depression.
  • infections.
  • dehydration.
  • the use of certain medications, even some bought over-the-counter. For example, diphenhydramine, which is used for allergies and to aid sleep, can cause confusion in the elderly. Sleeping pills, painkillers, and other drugs can also cause confusion or thinking and behaviour problems.
Confusion, memory loss or changes in mental or physical abilities should be reported to a doctor. He or she can rule out disorders or medications that might play a role. Even if no such problems are found, treatment may be available to help reduce some symptoms.

Some research has found that staying physically, mentally and socially active helps keep the mind sharp. The old saying "use it or lose it" is very true for the abilities ruled by the nervous system.

Author: James Broomfield, MD
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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