Ancient Greeks Didn't Seem to Get Dementia

Findings bolster theories that cognitive decline is linked to modern lifestyle, environment
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 11, 2024 12:40 PM CST
Ancient Greeks Didn't Seem to Get Dementia
Statue of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates in Athens.   (Getty / Panagiotis Maravelis)

A new study that went deep into ancient Greek and Roman medical texts suggests that dementia was rare 2,000 to 2,500 years ago. HealthDay notes the analysis builds on the theory that modern cognitive decline is linked to lifestyle and environmental factors. The findings, published in Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, say that records from ancient Greek physician Hippocrates and his cohorts contained only a few descriptions of mild cognitive impairment in older people. "Ancient Greeks and Romans expected intellectual competence beyond age 60," write the researchers. The old records focus on "physical frailties" of the aging population but do not describe symptoms associated with Alzheimer's disease or dementia, like loss of memory and speech.

When looking at records from Roman times centuries later, symptoms associated with dementia began to surface. "We uncovered at least four statements that suggest rare cases of advanced dementia—we can't tell if it's Alzheimer's," says lead author Caleb Finch. "So, there was a progression going from the ancient Greeks to the Romans." One of those statements was from Roman physician Galen, who noticed that some people struggled to learn new things when they reached 80. Per USC Today, the researchers believe new environmental factors were at play during this period. Along with more pollution as density increased in Roman cities, they were unknowingly exposing themselves to neurotoxins via lead pipes and even a lead additive used to sweeten wine.

Finch cross-checked his findings with studies of the Tsimane, an indigenous population in the Bolivian Amazon who have an active, pre-industrial lifestyle. Dementia rates for people 65 and older there are just 1% (much lower than 11% for Americans), bolstering the theory that sedentary lifestyle and pollution are major factors in cognitive decline. "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," Finch says. "They give us a template for asking these questions." (Scientists find a way to sneak Alzheimer's drug into brain.)

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