‘Dying back’ axon degeneration is a prominent feature of many age-related neurodegenerative disorders and is widespread in normal ageing. Although the mechanisms of disease- and age-related losses may differ, both contribute to symptoms. Here, we review recent advances in understanding axon pathology in age-related neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and glaucoma. In particular, we highlight the importance of axonal transport, autophagy, traumatic brain injury and mitochondrial quality control. We then place these disease mechanisms in the context of changes to axons and dendrites that occur during normal ageing. We discuss what makes ageing such an important risk factor for many neurodegenerative disorders and conclude that the processes of normal ageing and disease combine at the molecular, cellular or systems levels in a range of disorders to produce symptoms. Pathology identical to disease also occurs at the cellular level in most elderly individuals. Thus, normal ageing and age-related disease are inextricably linked and the term ‘healthy ageing’ downplays the important contributions of cellular pathology. For a full understanding of normal ageing or age-related disease we must study both processes.