Could a clue from the ancient past explain modern dementia?

Could a clue from the ancient past explain modern dementia?

Did the ancient Greeks and Romans get age-related dementia? The answer is, surprisingly seldom.

A new study suggests severe cognitive decline was not a significant societal problem 2,000 or more years ago. Indeed, the Greeks seem largely free of the condition.

And it’s not because the average lifespan is much longer today.

A team led by University of Southern California researchers analyzed ancient Greek and Roman texts dating from 2,000 to 2,500 ago. They looked for descriptions of severe dementia and Alzheimer’s symptoms in older adults.

They found few mentions of severe memory loss, indicating cognitive decline was extremely rare.

This supports the notion that Alzheimer’s and related cognitive diseases are a more recent phenomenon. The modern environment and lifestyle are thought to be responsible for the much higher rate of cognitive decline, from our poor diets and sedentary behavior to pollution.

Greek text revealed cases of what is today considered mild cognitive impairment. However, scientists found no cases suggesting a significant loss of reasoning, memory and speech.

The study found four later Roman cases of advanced dementia. Pliny [Plie-nee] the Elder, for example, wrote of a Roman senator who often forgot his name.

Investigators believe the congestion of some Roman cities caused pollution that posed a higher risk of dementia than in the Greek world.

Even today, indigenous Amazonians who live an active, preindustrial lifestyle rarely experience severe cognitive impairment in old age.

The lesson here is to keep to a healthy lifestyle. Yes, that’s harder said than done. Pliny the Elder, after all, didn’t own a widescreen TV.


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