Alzheimer’s disease (AD) – the most common type of dementia – was first discovered by clinical psychiatrist Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who described a 50-year-old woman, Auguste Deter, in a Frankfurt mental hospital in 1901.
It affects one in 14 people over the age of 65. one in six people over the age of 80 and one in three people aged 85 and over.
But has AD always affected the population? The Holy Bible – which does not hide diseases – does not mention it. some of our forefathers and foremothers (but not Sarah) suffered from vision problems, weakness and other physical problems at the end of their lives, but nothing about dementia.
Medical texts from 2,500 years ago rarely mention severe memory loss, suggesting that today’s widespread dementia stems from the modern environment and lifestyle, according to a new study at the University of Southern California.
A new analysis of classical Greek and Roman medical texts suggests that severe memory loss – 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, published in Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease under the title “Dementia in the ancient Greco-Roman world was little reported”, reinforces the idea that Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are diseases of the modern environment and lifestyle, with sedentary behavior and exposure to air pollution to a large extent .
“The ancient Greeks had very, very few – but we found them – reports of what would look like mild cognitive impairment,” said first author and gerontologist Professor Caleb Finch. “When we got to the Romans, and we discovered at least four statements indicating rare cases of advanced dementia. we can’t tell if it’s Alzheimer’s. Thus, there was a progression from the ancient Greeks to the Romans.”
Historical reports of memory loss
The ancient Greeks recognized that aging usually brought memory problems (which we would recognize as mild cognitive decline), but nothing close to the significant loss of memory, speech and reasoning caused by Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, he continued.
Finch and co-author Stanley Burstein, a historian at California State University, Los Angeles, examined a significant portion of the ancient medical writing of Hippocrates and his followers. The text records ailments of the elderly, such as deafness, dizziness, and digestive disorders, but makes no mention of memory loss.
Centuries later, in ancient Rome, some references appear. Galen observes that at the age of 80, some old people begin to have difficulty learning new things. Pliny the Elder notes that the senator and famous orator Valerius Messalla Corvinus forgot his name. Cicero wisely observed that “the folly of the aged … is characteristic of irresponsible old men, but not of all old men.”
The Greeks and Romans were mainly concerned with the physical infirmities of the elderly. Finch speculates that as Roman cities became denser, pollution increased, increasing cases 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 the powerful neurotoxin.
Some ancient writers recognized the toxicity of lead-containing material, but little progress was made in addressing the problem until the 20th century. Some scholars blame lead poisoning for the fall of the Roman Empire.
For this article, Finch didn’t just think of the Roman Empire or the Greeks. In the absence of demographic data from these ancient cultures, Finch turned to a surprising model for ancient aging—the present-day Tsimane Amerindians, 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 have extremely low rates of dementia. An international team of cognitive researchers led by professor of psychology and gerontology Margaret Gatz found themselves among elderly Tsimane.
“The Tsimane data, which is serious, is very valuable,” Finch said. “This is the best-documented large population of older people who have minimal dementia, all of which show that the environment is a huge determinant of dementia risk. They give us a template for asking these questions.”