In genetic disorders associated with premature neuronal death, symptoms may not appear for years or decades. This delay in clinical onset is often assumed to reflect the occurrence of age-dependent cumulative damage. For example, it has been suggested that oxidative stress disrupts metabolism in neurological degenerative disorders by the cumulative damage of essential macromolecules. A prediction of the cumulative damage hypothesis is that the probability of cell death will increase over time. Here we show in contrast that the kinetics of neuronal death in 12 models of photoreceptor degeneration, hippocampal neurons undergoing excitotoxic cell death, a mouse model of cerebellar degeneration and Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases are all exponential and better explained by mathematical models in which the risk of cell death remains constant or decreases exponentially with age. These kinetics argue against the cumulative damage hypothesis; instead, the time of death of any neuron is random. Our findings are most simply accommodated by a 'one-hit' biochemical model in which mutation imposes a mutant steady state on the neuron and a single event randomly initiates cell death. This model appears to be common to many forms of neurodegeneration and has implications for therapeutic strategies.