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Aging Changes In The Nervous System

  • Brain and spinal cord

Definition

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

What is the information for this topic?

When a nerve cell in the central nervous system dies, it is usually not replaced. As cells die normally with age, the brain weight gradually decreases. Deposits of fat and other material also occur inside brain cells. These changes can result in a gradual loss of cognitive (thinking) or motor (movement) function.
Every lost nerve cell does not necessarily mean a definite loss of function. Some people do have changes in nerves and brain tissue that slow thinking, memory, and physical activities. But not everyone who has a loss of brain tissue due to aging seems to be affected. Other people lose very little brain tissue but have severe mental changes.
There is much about aging and the nervous system that is not yet fully understood. Nerve impulses have been shown to lose speed with age, leading to slower reflexes and responses. There is also a normal, slow decline in the ability to learn new skills.
The rate at which a person processes information declines with age. Processing information involves three steps:
  • encoding, or receiving, information
  • retrieving, or recalling, information
  • storing, or retaining, information
It takes longer for older individuals to encode information. This is often due to the changes in the senses, such as hearing and vision, which occur with age. Increased encoding time may also be related to a decline in short-term memory. Different people lose these abilities at different rates.
Confusion, dementia, and severe memory loss are not a normal part of the aging process. Many times, severe problems in thinking and behavior are caused by medical problems, such as:
  • Alzheimer disease, which causes memory loss and impaired thinking
  • multiple strokes
  • other neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease or normal pressure hydrocephalus
  • coronary heart disease
  • depression
  • kidney disease or liver disease
  • infection
  • cancer
  • malnutrition, especially a deficiency in vitamins and minerals
  • the use of certain medicines, including sleeping pills, pain medicines, and over-the-counter cold remedies
Any new or worsening confusion, memory loss, or changes in mental or physical abilities should be reported to the healthcare professional. He or she can rule out disorders or medicines that might play a role. Even if no such problems are found, treatment may be available to help reduce some symptoms.
Recent research has found that staying physically, mentally, and socially active helps keep the mind sharp. People who use their minds for learning activities such as reading can delay the onset of mental decline.

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