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Ancient Greeks Seldom Hit by Dementia, Suggesting It's a Modern Malady
  • Posted February 2, 2024

Ancient Greeks Seldom Hit by Dementia, Suggesting It's a Modern Malady

Dementia seems like a disorder that's always haunted the human race.

But this form of severe memory loss is actually a modern malady, if classical Greek and Roman physicians are to be believed.

A new analysis of ancient Greek and Roman medical texts suggests that dementia was extremely rare 2,000 to 2,500 years ago, in the time of Aristotle, Galen and Pliny the Elder.

The new study bolsters the notion that Alzheimer's disease and related dementias are diseases promoted by modern environments and lifestyles, researchers said.

“The ancient Greeks had very, very few -- but we found them -- mentions of something that would be like mild cognitive impairment,” said lead researcher Caleb Finch, a professor with the University of Southern California's Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “When we got to the Romans and we uncovered at least four statements that suggest rare cases of advanced dementia -- we can't tell if it's Alzheimer's. So, there was a progression going from the ancient Greeks to the Romans.”

Ancient Greeks noted some age-related memory issues that today would be classified as mild cognitive impairment.

However, the Greeks never observed anything approaching the major loss of memory, speech and reasoning that's brought on by Alzheimer's and other dementias, researchers said.

Centuries later in ancient Rome, a few mentions of dementia-like brain problems begin to appear:

  • One famous physician of the Roman Empire, Galen, observed that at the age of 80 some elderly folks begin to have trouble learning new things.

  • The naturalist Pliny the Elder noted that a senator and famous orator, Valerius Messalla Corvinus, forgot his own name.

  • The Roman scholar Cicero wrote that “elderly silliness … is characteristic of irresponsible old men, but not of all old men.”

Finch speculates that pollution in Roman cities increased as they grew, driving up cases of thinking declines.

Romans also unwittingly exposed themselves to neurotoxic lead by using lead cooking vessels and lead water pipes, Finch added. They even added lead acetate to their wine to sweeten it.

The new study was published recently in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

These trends jibe with current theories that largely blame sedentary behavior and exposure to air pollution as major drivers of dementias, Finch said.

To double-check these observations regarding the ancient world, Finch turned to modern studies of Tsimane Amerindians, an indigenous people of the Bolivian Amazon.

The Tsimane mirror the ancient Greeks and Romans, in that they have a preindustrial lifestyle that is very active, researchers said.

They also have extremely low rates of dementia – about 1%, compared to 11% of Americans aged 65 and older.

“The Tsimane data, which is quite deep, is very valuable,” Finch said. “This is the best-documented large population of older people that have minimal dementia, all of which indicates that the environment is a huge determinant on dementia risk. They give us a template for asking these questions.”

More information

The Alzheimer's Association has more about dementia.

SOURCE: University of Southern California, news release, January 2024

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