The brain and nervous system are your body’s control center. They control your body’s movements, your senses, your thoughts and memories. They also 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 Persons
Dementia and severe memory loss are not a normal part of aging. They can be caused by brain diseases such Alzheimer's disease, which doctors believe is due to plaques and tangles forming in the brain and the buildup of lipofuscin.
Delirium is sudden and severe 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.
Discuss any changes in memory, thought, or ability to perform a task with your health care provider. 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 reading, doing crossword puzzles, and even 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:
Minaker KL. Common clinical sequelae of aging. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman’s Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 24.
Reichman WE, Cummings JL. Dementia. In: Duthie EH, Katz PR, Malone ML, eds. Practice of Geriatrics. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2007:chap 25.
Rudolph JL, Marcantonio ER. Delirium. In: Duthie EH, Katz PR, Malone ML, eds. Practice of Geriatrics. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2007:chap 26.
Updated by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.
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