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How aging impacts the neurological system

Physiological changes occur in the human body as people age. Age- related changes in the musculoskeletal system may be structural, sensory and/or behavioral.

Structural: Structural changes in the nervous system occur most notably in the brain, nervous cells or neurons, and hormones that control activity of the nervous system. With age comes the loss of neurons in the brain, a decrease in total brain weight, and the thinning of dendrites, the primary communication structures between neurons. When dendrite degeneration occurs, the ability to connect with other neurons is diminished. Consequently, communication signals travel at a slower rate from the central to the peripheral components of the nervous system.

Sensory: Age-related sensory changes relate to vision, hearing, and proprioception or body awareness. Vision changes may include diminished visual acuity, peripheral vision, contrast sensitivity, and depth perception. In addition, aging diminishes the ability to adapt to dark environments, navigate around obstacles, and maintain balance and mobility. Hearing diminishes with age as older adults experience a decline in hearing acuity, ability to mask irrelevant sounds, and the localization of sound. Proprioception, which is the ability to perceive body positioning, diminishes with aging primarily relative to feet and ankles, and this has implications for balance, mobility, and risk for falls.

Behavioral: Behavioral changes to the nervous system relate to response speed, the ability to process information, and the ability to learn new motor skills. Response speed diminishes gradually over time and can impact the ability to complete complex tasks and those that require a distinction between several competing signals. Changes in processing information primarily pertain to attention, learning, memory, and intelligence. Loss of attention and distraction may prevent older adults from understanding or recalling important information. Older adults retain short-term memory while long-term memory diminishes with age. While learning and experience remain fairly stable, fluid intelligence decreases with age. The reduction in memory prowess may diminish the ability to learn new motor or cognitive skills.

Myles Dias, Master Trainer, Certified Senior Fitness Specialist

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