In the current investigation, hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis function was examined in young and aged male Long-Evans rats that were initially assessed on a version of the Morris water maze sensitive to cognitive impairment during ageing. In behaviourally characterized rats, a 1-h restraint stress paradigm revealed that plasma corticosterone concentrations in aged cognitively impaired rats took significantly longer to return to baseline following the stressor than did those in young or aged cognitively unimpaired rats. No differences in basal or peak plasma corticosterone concentrations, however, were observed between young or aged rats, irrespective of cognitive status. Using ribonuclease protection assays and in situ hybridization, we evaluated mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) and glucocorticoid receptor (GR) mRNA abundance in young and aged rats characterized on the spatial task. Abundance of MR mRNA was decreased as a function of age in stratum granulosum but not hippocampus proper, and the decrease in MR mRNA was largely unrelated to cognitive status. However, GR mRNA was significantly reduced in several hippocampal subfields (i.e. stratum granulosum and temporal hippocampus proper) and other related cortical structures (medial prefrontal and olfactory regions) of aged cognitively impaired rats compared to either young or aged cognitively unimpaired cohorts, and was significantly correlated with spatial learning ability among the aged rats in each of these brain regions. In agreement with previous stereological data from this ageing model, no changes were detected in neuron density in the hippocampus of the rats used in the in situ hybridization analysis. These data are the first to describe a coordinated decrease in GR mRNA in a functional brain system including hippocampus and related cortical areas that occurs in tandem with impairments of the HPA response to stress and cognitive decline in ageing.