Why the Romans didn’t get dementia – study finds it is a ‘modern disease’ because there are so few mentions of severe memory loss in ancient texts
Dementia is probably a ‘modern disease’ because there are so few mentions of severe memory loss in ancient Greek and Roman medical texts, scientists claim.
Experts searched writings from 2,000 to 2,500 years ago – the times of Aristotle, Galen and Cicero.
Ancient Greeks recognized that aging usually brings with it 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 as caused by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Professor Caleb Finch, of the University of Southern California, has studied a large amount of ancient medical writings by Hippocrates and his followers.
Scientists believe dementia is probably a ‘modern disease’ because there are so few mentions of it in Greek and Roman medical texts (stock photo)
A picture of Hippocrates refusing gifts from Artaxerxes I of Persia
A bust of the Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC)
The text catalogs ailments of the elderly such as deafness, dizziness and indigestion – but makes no mention of memory loss.
Centuries later in ancient Rome, however, a few mentions surface.
Galen notes that some elderly people at the age of 80 have difficulty learning new things.
Pliny the Elder notes that the senator and famous orator Valerius Messalla Corvinus forgot his own name.
And Cicero observed that ‘aged silliness … is characteristic of irresponsible old men, but not of all old men’.
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 – but we found them – mentions of something that would be like mild cognitive impairment.
‘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 that went from the ancient Greeks to the Romans.”
Romans and Greeks are generally thought to have had an average life expectancy of 30 to 35 years old, based on research examining tombstones from the period.
However, dementia rarely occurs until sufferers are in their 60s and older – meaning that the disease, which is thought to be caused by an abnormal build-up of proteins around brain cells and not an inevitable part of aging – will not be as common. as it is now.
Some historians reject claims that Romans and Greeks had such short lifespans, pointing to records that indicate that people had to be in their 40s to hold certain political roles and that a handful of people reached their 100th birthday.
Still, while some may have become centenarians, it was much rarer than it is now.
Professor Finch speculates that as Roman cities became denser, pollution increased, driving cases of cognitive decline.
Scientists don’t know for sure that pollution causes dementia, but numerous studies have linked the two. Researchers believe this is dependent on small particles emitted by traffic fumes, which may flow into the brain – possibly through the bloodstream or nasal mucosa.
Additionally, Roman aristocrats used lead cooking vessels, lead water pipes and even added lead acetate to their wine to sweeten it – unknowingly poisoning themselves with the powerful neurotoxin.
A few ancient authors recognized the toxicity of lead-containing materials, but little progress was made in dealing with 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 used studies of today’s Tsimane Amerindians, an indigenous people of the Bolivian Amazon, to support their findings.
The Tsimane – like the ancient Greeks and Romans – have a pre-industrial lifestyle that is very physically active, and they have extremely low rates of dementia.
An international team of cognitive researchers led by Professor Margaret Gatz, also from USC, found that among older Tsimane people only about 1 percent suffer from dementia.
In 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 indicate that the environment is a major determinant of dementia risk.
“They give us a template to ask these questions.”