The neurology of ageing: what is normal?

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Ageing is associated with changes in the nervous system with consequent alterations in some neurological examination findings: understanding what is ‘normal’ at different ages is essential when evaluating patients. In seminal papers published in 1931, Dr MacDonald Critchley summarised his observations and the prevailing evidence on the effects of ageing on, among others, sensation, reflexes, ocular function, olfaction, movement and cognition. In this review, these observations are re-evaluated in light of contemporary evidence. Factors influencing the measurement and interpretation of these clinical findings are then discussed, including reproducibility, the influence of comorbidities, secular trends, how ‘normality’ should best be defined, the problems of extrapolating group data to individuals and the influence of presymptomatic neurodegenerative disease states. The case is made that context is critical, and that combining life course data with detailed clinical and biomarker phenotyping is required to understand the determinants of normal neurological function associated with ageing.

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