Did Alzheimer’s ail the elderly in antiquity? With dementia cases on the rise in modern times, it’s an intriguing question and, thankfully, a new study has some answers.
Dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is the most common type, is not a specific disease, but rather a term used to describe symptoms related to memory loss. Today, it occurs at epidemic levels and is becoming increasingly more common. An estimated 55 million people worldwide were living with dementia in 2020, and that figure is predicted to double every 20 years, rising to 139 million by 2050.
But, according to the new research, this hasn’t always been the case. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias were seemingly quite rare some 2,500 years ago.
“The ancient Greeks had very, very few – but we found them – mentions of something that would be like mild cognitive impairment,” first author Caleb Finch, a University Professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, said in a statement. “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 going from the ancient Greeks to the Romans.”
Searching Greco-Roman medical texts from between the eighth century BCE and the third century CE, Finch and colleagues were on the lookout for mention of memory loss and dementia. However, they found nothing that could be considered akin to modern accounts.
“The modern ‘epidemic level’ of advanced dementias was not described among ancient Greco-Roman elderly,” they write in their study. In fact, they add, the “ancient Greeks and Romans expected intellectual competence beyond age 60.”
While some mild memory loss was recognized by the ancient Greeks, severe impairment that might represent Alzheimer’s was not. Ancient writings by Hippocrates and his followers, for example, documented deafness, dizziness, and digestive disorders as things that plagued the elderly but made no mention of memory loss.
In Rome, centuries later, there were a handful of accounts, but still very few when compared to today. Descriptions of difficulty learning new things and people forgetting their own names crop up in works by philosophers Galen and Pliny the Elder, while Cicero remarked that “elderly silliness … is characteristic of irresponsible old men, but not of all old men.”
To explain this apparent uptick in cognitive impairment, the study authors suggest it could be a symptom of ancient metropolitan life.
“The possible emergence of advanced [Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias] in the Roman era may be associated with environmental factors of air pollution and increased exposure to lead,” they write. According to Finch, lead cooking vessels, water pipes, and even lead-laced wine were all commonly used by Roman aristocrats.
As for the boom in dementia cases we are seeing today, these findings could offer some insight, perhaps hinting that our modern lifestyles and environments, with sedentary behavior and exposure to air pollution, may be at fault, just as in Roman times.
The study is published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.