Aging changes in the nervous system
The brain and nervous system are your body's central control center. They control your body's:
- Thoughts and memories
They also help control the organs such as your heart and bowels.
Nerves are the pathways that carry signals to and from your brain and the rest of your body. The spinal cord is the bundle of nerves that runs from your brain down the center of your back. Nerves extend out from the spinal cord to every part of your body.
AGING CHANGES AND THEIR EFFECTS ON THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
As you age, your brain and nervous system go through natural changes. Your brain and spinal cord lose nerve cells and weight (atrophy). Nerve cells may begin to pass messages more slowly than in the past. Waste products can collect in the brain tissue as nerve cells break down. This can cause abnormal changes in the brain called plaques and tangles to form. A fatty brown pigment (lipofuscin) can also build up in nerve tissue.
Breakdown of nerves can affect your senses. You might have reduced or lost reflexes or sensation. This leads to problems with movement and safety.
Slowing of thought, memory, and thinking is a normal part of aging. These changes are not the same in everyone. Some people have many changes in their nerves and brain tissue. Others have few changes. These changes are not always related to the effects on your ability to think.
NERVOUS SYSTEM PROBLEMS IN OLDER PEOPLE
Dementia and severe memory loss are not a normal part of aging. They can be caused by brain diseases such as Alzheimer disease, which doctors believe is associated with plaques and tangles forming in the brain and the buildup of lipofuscin.
Delirium is sudden confusion that leads to changes in thinking and behavior. It is often due to illnesses that are not related to the brain. Infection can cause an older person to become severely confused. Certain medicines can also cause this.
Thinking and behavior problems can also be caused by poorly controlled diabetes. Rising and falling blood sugar levels can interfere with thought.
Talk with your health care provider if you have any changes in:
- Ability to perform a task
Seek medical help right away if these symptoms occur suddenly or along with other symptoms. A change in thinking, memory, or behavior is important if it is different from your normal patterns or it affects your lifestyle.
Mental and physical exercise can help your brain stay sharp. Mental exercises include:
- Doing crossword puzzles
- Stimulating conversation
Physical exercise promotes blood flow to your brain. It also helps reduce loss of brain cells.
As you grow older, you will have other changes, including:
Galvin JE. Neurologic signs in older adults. In: Fillit HM, Rockwood K, Young J, eds. Brocklehurst's Textbook of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 18.
Khan BA, Boustani MA. Delirium. In: Ham RJ, Sloane PD, Warshaw GA, Potter JF, Flaherty E, eds. Ham's Primary Care Geriatrics. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 16.
Khandelwal C, Kaufer DI. Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. In: Ham RJ, Sloane PD, Warshaw GA, Potter JF, Flaherty E, eds. Ham's Primary Care Geriatrics. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 17.
Review Date: 8/22/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.