THE signature of our age is a thin-blooded, nervous generation. Only a few decades ago our women were so healthy that they were able to suffer occasional bloodlettings to counteract a supposed excess of blood. Now our girls are pale even in their school age, and the general complaint is that the girls are nervous. Not without reason is the age called a nervous one. While our ancestors, living in natural conditions, hardly knew what nerves were, we complain of excited nerves, even among our children; and adults, especially in the cities, who do not suffer from nervousness are exceptions. There is no doubt that weakness of the nerves, or neurasthenia as the doctors call it, is an acquisition of modern civilization, and at this time, or since attention was called to it by the American George M. Beard, as being as it were a new disease, is playing a formidable part with doctors and laymen.
The term neurasthenia does not so much signify a special affection of the nervous system as it is a fittingly chosen general name for a whole group of disorders the character of which consists in the nervous system failing to act properly, on account of a deficiency of normal nerve-substance. Such a condition, or at least a pronounced tendency to it, is in many cases inherited from parents; and only slightly unfavorable circumstances are required in children thus hereditarily tainted for the development of pronounced neurasthenia. There is, besides the hereditary form, an acquired weakness of the nerves, which may be produced by a considerable variety of causes. The blame for the present condition of our society undoubtedly lies in the haste and pressure of the age, with its battle for existence, driving us into morbidity. The increase and crowded condition of lunatic asylums speaks with admonitory plainness in this matter, and it is time that the right meaning was attached to the momentous phenomenon. Even in the country, where the hygienic conditions are relatively favorable, the evil of nervous weakness is gradually making itself more plain. It is conspicuous in the larger cities, where, with the meeting of great masses of men, the clatter of railroads, and the driving of factories, excitement prevails through day and night, under which the afflicted nerves with great difficulty obtain the rest they need. To this haste and excitement in social life are added the schools with their augmented demands, the trial of examinations, and modern business life; and it is no wonder that only a small fraction of the population escape these attacks on the nervous system.