The contribution of genetic differences to variation in ageing and the relationship of ageing to certain types of dementia are discussed. Neuropathological changes commonly found in the ageing brain are present in more severe form in Alzheimer-type dementia, Down's syndrome, multi-infarct dementia, and a substantial number of patients with Parkinson's disease. An increased frequency of ageing-associated changes outside the brain have been reported in Alzheimer-type dementia, Down's syndrome, and multi-infarct dementia, although the evidence is generally meagre and in many cases requires further corroboration. Genetic studies of Alzheimer-type dementia support the existence of heterogeneity on the basis of family history and age of onset; early onset is associated with greater genetic risk and severity of abnormality. The increasing evidence of an association between DNA damage, premature ageing, and neuronal cell loss may provide insights into the aetiology of these and other forms of dementia.