Home Health Is dementia a ‘modern disease’? New thought-provoking study claims that the memory-robbing illness was surprisingly rare in ancient Greek and Roman times

Is dementia a ‘modern disease’? New thought-provoking study claims that the memory-robbing illness was surprisingly rare in ancient Greek and Roman times

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Scientists believe that dementia is probably a

Dementia is likely a “modern disease” because there are so few mentions of severe memory loss in ancient Greek and Roman medical texts, researchers said in a thought-provoking new study.

The experts examined writings from 2,000 to 2,500 years ago: the time of Aristotle, Galen and Cicero.

The ancient Greeks recognized that aging commonly brought memory problems, which today would be diagnosed as “mild cognitive impairment.”

But there was no evidence of anything approaching a major loss of memory, speech and reasoning caused by Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia that millions of people around the world suffer from today.

Gerontologist Professor Caleb Finch, of the University of Southern California, said their findings reinforce the idea that dementia is a disease of modern environments and lifestyles.

Scientists believe dementia is probably a “modern disease” because there are very few mentions of it in Greek and Roman medical texts (file photo)

An image of Hippocrates rejecting gifts from Artaxerxes I of Persia.

An image of Hippocrates rejecting gifts from Artaxerxes I of Persia.

A bust of the Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC)

A bust of the Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC)

He pored over an important body of ancient medical writings by Hippocrates and his followers. The text catalogs ailments of older people such as deafness, dizziness and digestive disorders, but does not mention memory loss.

However, centuries later, in ancient Rome, some mentions emerge.

Galen comments that at age 80, some older people begin to have difficulty learning new things.

Pliny the Elder notes that the senator and famous orator Valerius Messala Corvinus forgot his own name.

And Cicero observed that “the foolishness of the elderly… is characteristic of irresponsible elderly people, but not of all elderly people.”

Professor Finch said the findings, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, reinforce the idea that Alzheimer’s is a product of modern life.

He added: “The ancient Greeks had very, very few mentions, but we found them, of something that would be like mild cognitive impairment.

‘When we get to the Romans and discover at least four statements suggesting rare cases of advanced dementia, we cannot say whether it is Alzheimer’s.

“So there was a progression from the ancient Greeks to the Romans.”

The Romans and Greeks are thought to have had an average life expectancy of 30 to 35 years, according to research that examined tombstones from the era.

However, dementia rarely appears until sufferers are 60 or older, although it is not an inevitable part of aging.

It means that the disease, which is believed to be caused by an abnormal buildup of proteins around brain cells over time, will not have been as prevalent as it is now.

Some historians dismiss claims that the Romans and Greeks had such short lifespans, pointing to records that suggest people had to be around 40 years old to serve in certain political roles and that a handful of people lived to be 100 years old.

However, while some may have become centenarians, it was much rarer than now.

Professor Finch speculates that as Roman cities became denser, pollution increased, increasing cases of cognitive decline.

Scientists don’t know for sure whether pollution causes dementia, but numerous studies have linked the two. Researchers believe it is due to small particles released by traffic fumes, which can reach the brain, possibly through the bloodstream or the lining of the nose.

Additionally, Roman aristocrats used lead cooking vessels, lead water pipes, and even added lead acetate to wine to sweeten it, unknowingly poisoning themselves with the powerful neurotoxin.

Some early writers recognized the toxicity of lead-containing material, but little progress was made in addressing the problem until well into the 20th century.

Some scholars even blame lead poisoning for the fall of the Roman Empire.

However, there is no concrete evidence that pollution or lead can directly cause memory loss.

The researchers drew on studies of the present-day Tsimane Amerindians, an indigenous people of the Bolivian Amazon, to support their findings.

The Tsimane, like the ancient Greeks and Romans, have a very physically active pre-industrial lifestyle and have extremely low rates of dementia.

An international team of cognitive researchers led by Professor Margaret Gatz, also of USC, found that among older Tsimane people, only about 1 percent suffer from dementia.

By contrast, 11 percent of people age 65 and older living in the United States have dementia.

“The Tsimane data, which is quite deep, is very valuable,” Professor Finch said.

“This is the best-documented large population of older people who have minimal dementia, all of which indicates that the environment is a huge determinant of dementia risk.

“They give us a model for asking these questions.”

What is Alzheimer’s and how is it treated?

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative brain disease in which the accumulation of abnormal proteins causes the death of nerve cells.

This disrupts the transmitters that carry messages and causes the brain to shrink.

More than 5 million people suffer from the disease in the United States, where it is the sixth leading cause of death, and more than 1 million Britons suffer from it.


As brain cells die, the functions they perform are lost.

That includes memory, orientation, and the ability to think and reason.

The progress of the disease is slow and gradual.

On average, patients live five to seven years after diagnosis, but some can live ten to 15 years.


  • Short-term memory loss.
  • Disorientation
  • Behavior changes
  • Humor changes
  • Difficulty handling money or making a phone call.


  • Severe memory loss, forgetting close relatives, familiar objects or places.
  • Feeling anxious and frustrated about the inability to make sense of the world, leading to aggressive behavior.
  • Over time he loses the ability to walk.
  • You may have problems eating
  • Most will eventually need 24-hour care


There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

However, there are some treatments that help relieve some of the symptoms.

One of them is acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, which help brain cells communicate with each other.

Another is menanthin, which works by blocking a chemical called glutamate that can build up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease and inhibit mental function.

As the disease progresses, Alzheimer’s patients may begin to exhibit aggressive behavior and/or suffer from depression. Medications may be provided to help mitigate these symptoms.

Other non-pharmaceutical treatments are also recommended, such as brain training to improve memory and help combat one of the aspects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Fountain: Alzheimer’s Association and the National Health Service

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