The rarity of dementia in Greek and Roman times

The rarity of dementia in Greek and Roman times

summary: Severe memory loss, similar to today’s dementia epidemic, was extremely rare in ancient Greece and Rome, suggesting that these conditions may stem largely from modern lifestyles and environments.

By analyzing classical texts, the study found minimal references to cognitive disabilities in these ancient civilizations, which contrasts sharply with today’s rates of dementia. The comparison with American Tsimane Indians, who live a pre-industrial lifestyle and show low rates of dementia, also supports the theory that physical activity levels and environmental factors significantly influence the prevalence of dementia.

This historical and comparative analysis underscores the impact of sedentary behavior and pollution on cognitive health, and provides insights into dementia prevention in the modern era.

Key facts:

  1. Ancient Greek and Roman texts show very few cases of cognitive impairment, suggesting that diseases such as Alzheimer’s were rare 2,000 years ago.
  2. The study compares the prevalence of ancient dementia with the prevalence of dementia in the Tsimane people, who have low rates of dementia due to their active, pre-industrial lifestyle.
  3. Environmental factors, such as air pollution and sedentary behaviour, are highlighted as major contributors to the recent increase in dementia cases.

source: University of Southern California

You might think that age-related dementia has been with us all along, dating back to the ancient world.

But a new analysis of classical Greek and Roman medical texts suggests that severe amnesia — occurring at epidemic levels today — was extremely rare 2,000 to 2,500 years ago, in the time of Aristotle, Galen, and Pliny the Elder.

The research led by the University of Southern California, published in Alzheimer’s disease journal, It reinforces the idea that Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are diseases of modern environments and lifestyles, with sedentary behavior and exposure to air pollution largely to blame.

This shows a statue.
Finch speculates that as Roman cities became more dense, pollution increased, leading to increased incidences of cognitive decline. Credit: Neuroscience News

“The ancient Greeks had very, very few — but we have found — mentions of something that might resemble mild cognitive impairment,” said first author Caleb Finch, a university professor at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California.

“When we got to the Romans, we discovered at least four data indicating rare cases of advanced dementia – we couldn’t tell if it was Alzheimer’s disease. So, there was a progression from the ancient Greeks to the Romans.

The ancient Greeks recognized that aging typically leads to memory problems that we might recognize as mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, but nothing comes close to the significant loss of memory, speech, and thinking that occurs due to Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

Finch and co-author Stanley Boorstin, a historian at California State University, Los Angeles, studied a large corpus of ancient medical writings by Hippocrates and his followers. The text lists ailments from which the elderly suffer, such as deafness, dizziness, and digestive disorders, but does not mention memory loss.

Several centuries later in ancient Rome, some signs appeared. Galen notes that at age 80, some older people begin to have difficulty learning new things. Pliny the Elder notes that the famous senator and orator Valerius Messala Corvinus forgot his name. Cicero wisely observed that “the absurdity of old age… is a characteristic of irresponsible old people, but it is not a characteristic of all old people.”

Finch speculates that as Roman cities became more dense, pollution increased, leading to increased incidences of cognitive decline. In addition, Roman aristocrats used lead cookware, lead water pipes, and even added lead acetate to their wine to sweeten it – unwittingly poisoning themselves with the powerful neurotoxin.

(A few ancient writers recognized the toxicity of lead-containing materials, but little progress was made in dealing with the problem until well into the twentieth century.)y a century. Some scholars blame lead poisoning for the fall of the Roman Empire.)

In this paper, Finch did not think only of the Roman Empire or the Greeks. In the absence of demographic data on ancient Greece and Rome, Finch turned to a surprising model for antiquity: today’s American Tsimane Indians, an indigenous people of the Bolivian Amazon.

The Tsimane – like the ancient Greeks and Romans – have a pre-industrial lifestyle that is very physically active, and their rates of dementia are very low. An international team of cognitive researchers led by Margaret Gatz, a professor of psychology, gerontology and preventive medicine at the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School, found that only about 1% of older Tsimane people have dementia. In contrast, 11% of people age 65 or older living in the United States have dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

“The Tsimane data, which is very deep, is very valuable,” Finch said. “This is the best-documented proportion of older adults with minimal dementia, and it all suggests that environment is a big determining factor in dementia risk. They give us a model for asking these questions.”

This paper was supported by funding from the Alzheimer’s Cure Fund and the National Institutes of Health (P01 AG055367 and R01 AG05442).

About Alzheimer’s disease and neurological research news

author: Lee Hooper
source: University of Southern California
communication: Lee Hooper – University of Southern California
picture: Image credited to Neuroscience News

Original search: Closed access.
“Dementia is minimally mentioned in the ancient Greco-Roman world” by Caleb Finch et al. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease


a summary

Dementia in the ancient Greco-Roman world was mentioned to a minimum

background: The possibility that Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia (ADRD) is a modern disease arises from the minimal mention of advanced cognitive decline by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who were primarily concerned with physical frailty at advanced ages.

objective: Because standard geriatric health histories lacked mention of cognitive decline, we examined texts by Greek and Roman authors that mentioned memory loss and dementia. Methods: Primary texts by Greco-Roman authors, from the 8th century BC to the 3rd century AD, that mentioned cognitive decline were identified and critically evaluated. Secondary sources were excluded.

results: There is no ancient account of cognitive loss equivalent to modern clinical data. The term dementia was sometimes used in ancient times, but was not always associated with old age. The ancient Greeks and Romans expected intellectual competence after the age of sixty. While some memory loss was recognized, we found only four cases of severe cognitive loss that may represent ADRD. The modest prevalence of ADRD in ancient Greece and Rome is consistent with its low prevalence in the Tsimane region of Bolivia. These modern American Indians live under conditions of high mortality from recurrent infections and minimal cardiovascular disease with a physically demanding life. After age 60, Tsimane people had an increase in mild cognitive impairment; The few cases of dementia were not clinically consistent with Alzheimer’s disease.

Conclusions: A modern “epidemic level” of advanced dementia cases among ancient Greco-Roman elderly has not been described. The possibility of advanced ADRD in Roman times may be related to environmental factors of air pollution and increased exposure to lead. Further historical analysis may lead to the formulation of critical hypotheses about the novelty of the high ADRD prevalence.

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