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Neurological Health

Your nervous system is in charge of so much.

Neurological health is at the core of everything we do as humans, from brushing our teeth to exercising to chatting with friends. Despite being responsible for crucial things like our brain function and motor skills, many of us don’t keep our neurological health top of mind until we get older, but that’s a mistake. Developing symptoms of a neurological disorder isn’t something to brush off, because having a neurological condition—whether it starts from birth or develops later in as you age—can be life-changing.

Your neurological health refers to the overall state of your nervous system.

Amanda K Bailey

What is neurological health?

Neurological health refers to the overall state of your nervous system, which guides nearly everything you do, think, say, or feel, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Your nervous system is like the headquarters of your body and allows you to do all the things that make you human, such as:

  • Remembering your route to work
  • Learning a new language
  • Feeling scared during a horror film
  • Staying balanced while walking
  • Tasting the sweetness in a cookie
  • Falling asleep at night
  • Breathing without thinking about it
  • Feeling anxious or calm during a stressful work project
  • Digesting food and beverages
  • Going through puberty

Your nervous system is a huge network of nerves that send electrical signals to and from other cells, glands, and muscles in your body, in addition to interpreting the information around you. This system is made up of special cells called neurons that send different messages depending on their particular function or type, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Motor neurons tell your muscles to move, for example, while sensory neurons collect information from your senses, like sight or sound, and communicate what it learns to your brain.

How does the nervous system work?

Your nervous system is broken into two main parts: Your central nervous system (made up of your brain and spinal cord) and your peripheral nervous system (made up of nerves branching off from your spinal cord that travel through different areas of your body).

The main parts of your nervous system include:

  • The brain, which contains blood vessels to circulate oxygen through your body and nerves. It analyzes messages sent from your nerves and also uses nerves to communicate to your body, telling it to do things like raise your arm.
  • The spinal cord, which is a long, tubelike band of tissue that connects your brain to your lower back1. The spinal cord helps carry nerve signals that are responsible for helping you move and feel sensations, which are communicated between your brain and body.
  • Neurons (nerve cells), which send and receive electrical and chemical signals to and from one another and other cells to communicate to your body what actions to do2. Each nerve has a protective outer layer called myelin which insulates the cell and helps messages get through efficiently.
  • Glia, which are cells that help keep your nervous system functioning as it should. They offer support by holding neurons in place, protecting and repairing neurons, creating myelin, and getting rid of dead neurons, according to the NIH.

Common neurological disorders and diseases

Neurological disorders can occur when something happens to interrupt the normal function of your nervous system. It’s not clear just how many people will have a neurological disorder in their lifetime, but in 2017 roughly 60% of Americans were affected by at least one neurological condition, according to a paper published in JAMA Neurology3. Below are some common neurological disorders and diseases and how they are identified.


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is most commonly diagnosed in childhood. People with ADHD tend to experience hyperactivity, have a hard time paying attention, or can’t control their impulses to the point where it affects their day-to-day life, often in work or school, according to the CDC.


Dementia causes you to lose your cognitive abilities, such as your memory or the ability to make decisions, according to the National Institute of Aging (NIA). Dementia ranges from mild, when it just starts to impair function, to severe, when someone completely depends on others to live. Dementia occurs when healthy neurons in the brain start to die at a greater pace than normal.

Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys a person’s memory and thinking skills due to complex and harmful changes in the brain, according to the NIA. In fact, the disease affects your ability to remember to the point where you might not recall the names of your loved ones. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia in older people (typically those over age 65) and the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.


Seizures are caused by a sudden disruption of the electrical activity in your brain, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Sometimes these happen because of injuries or other conditions such as a stroke, but many times the exact cause of seizures isn’t known. They can make you feel confused and impact consciousness. Seizures range in symptoms and severity and usually last from 30 seconds to 2 minutes.


Epilepsy is a central nervous system disorder that causes abnormal electrical signals and is defined by having at least one seizure, per the CDC. The causes of epilepsy are not fully understood, but it can sometimes be triggered by conditions that cause damage to the brain, like a head injury, stroke, central nervous system infection, or tumor.


You’ve probably experienced a headache at some point in your life—it’s actually the most common form of pain, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Tension headaches are the most common, as they’re set off by tight muscles in your shoulders, neck, scalp, or jaw, often due to things like stress or anxiety.


Migraine is a condition that leads to debilitating, throbbing head pain, typically on one side of the head. A migraine attack progresses in stages and can cause symptoms like nausea, dizziness, and sensitivity to light and sound, as well as sensory disturbances known as aura. Experts believe migraine develops due to abnormal changes to inflammation-inducing substances in the brain, which activate pain pathways. Genetic factors may also play a role.


There are various types of meningitis, which are most often caused by a bacterial or viral infection4 that sets off swelling in the membranes surrounding your brain and spinal cord. Early symptoms are reminiscent of the flu and include fever, severe headache, neck pain or stiffness, confusion, nausea, or little appetite. Meningitis is an acute condition that can be life-threatening and needs immediate medical attention.

Multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a central nervous system disease that is also thought to be an autoimmune disorder. In MS, the immune system goes haywire and mistakenly attacks the myelin, or protective insulation, covering your nerve fibers, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. This assault interferes with how well your brain can communicate with the rest of your body, leading to a range of potential MS symptoms, including muscle weakness, gait issues, vision problems, slurred speech, and tingling in the nerves, among others.

Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease develops when nerve cells that help control movement die or become damaged (both for unknown reasons), leading to shaking, stiffness in the limbs and trunk, and trouble walking due to loss of balance, according to the NIA. Other abnormal changes in the brain, some due to genetic factors, may also play a role. Generally symptoms of this brain disorder start slowly and get worse over time, causing some people to have trouble walking and talking, as well as mood changes, memory problems, fatigue, and more.


A stroke happens when the blood supply to part of your brain is cut off or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts, which results in the brain not getting enough oxygen and nutrients, according to the CDC. Symptoms can include sudden slurred speech, paralysis or numbness of the face or extremities (especially on one side of the body), vision issues, headache, confusion, or trouble walking. Stroke is a leading cause of death in the U.S., so it requires immediate medical attention to minimize brain damage.

Symptoms of neurological disorders

Every neurological disorder is different, so the symptoms can vary greatly. But there are some overarching symptoms that might suggest you’re dealing with a neurological issue over something else:

  • Chronic or sudden headaches
  • Headaches that change or feel different than normal
  • Unexplained vision changes, like blurriness or double vision
  • Feeling numbness, tingling, or loss of sensation in your arms or legs
  • Slurring your speech without any known cause
  • Losing consciousness
  • Loss of coordination or trouble moving
  • Unexplained memory loss
  • Impaired mental ability
  • Tremors

How are neurological disorders diagnosed?

Every neurological condition has its own criteria that doctors typically use to confirm a diagnosis. Many times, lab tests and scans are done to help doctors identify key elements of a condition. Below are some of the tests that can help detect neurological disorders:

  • Computerized tomography (CT) scans use a series of X-rays to show images of your brain from different angles.
  • Blood tests are normally used to check for signs of an infection or to rule out other conditions that may be causing your symptoms.
  • Lumbar puncture to test your spinal fluid for possible infections and rule out other conditions.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses magnets and radio waves to give a detailed look at your brain to highlight any abnormalities or lesions.
  • Motor tests analyze your speed and ability when performing fine motor tasks that require coordination and normal neurological function.
  • Cognitive testing helps your doctor understand your ability to remember and analyze information. There are numerous cognitive tests and they might include questions that ask you to memorize words, identify objects in photos, or draw certain objects.
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) analyzes the electrical activity of your brain and allows your doctor to understand if the results indicate a neurological condition. For example, people with epilepsy who have seizures will have rapid, spiking brain waves.

How can I improve my neurological health?

There are so many factors that affect your neurological health. Some of them, like your genetics, are beyond your control—but there are plenty that you can take charge of to support your overall health and keep your brain sharp. This includes:

  • Stay mentally stimulated by solving puzzles, reading, and drawing, according to Harvard Health experts.
  • Exercise regularly to increase the number of blood vessels that bring oxygen to your brain—ideally at least 150 minutes per week of moderately intense exercise, such as power walking, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans5.
  • Maintain healthy blood pressure, since high blood pressure is linked with a higher risk of cognitive decline.
  • Maintain healthy blood sugar levels because diabetes, which is marked by high blood sugar, raises your risk of developing certain cognitive issues.
  • Avoid alcohol or limit your intake because excessive alcohol use is a risk factor for dementia. The CDC recommends just one drink per day for people assigned female at birth and two drinks a day for people assigned male at birth.
  • Eat a nutritious diet, like the Mediterranean diet, which consists of fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, unsaturated oils, fiber-rich grains, and plant sources of protein like lentils. People who followed this style of eating were less likely to develop cognitive issues such as dementia, according to a 2016 review of 32 studies published in Advances in Nutrition6.
  • Prioritize your mental health by getting enough sleep and finding emotional support, perhaps by speaking with a therapist if you are struggling.
  • Stay social by volunteering in your community, seeing friends, or spending time with family, as feeling socially isolated is a known risk factor for dementia7.

Overall, your neurological health is a key player in keeping your entire body running smoothly—so it is important to make it a priority now, even if you are young.


  1. StatPearls, Anatomy, Back, Spinal Cord
  2. Alcohol Health and Research World, The Principles of Nerve Cell Communication
  3. JAMA Neurology, Burden of Neurological Disorders Across the US From 1990-2017
  4. StatPearls, Meningitis
  5. Department of Health & Human Services USA, Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
  6. Advances in Nutrition, Mediterranean Diet, Cognitive Function, and Dementia: A Systematic Review of the Evidence
  7. World Health Organization, Risk Reduction of Cognitive Decline and Dementia: WHO Guidelines

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