New research suggests Ancient Greeks rarely suffered from dementia

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What chances did important Ancient Greek figures of antiquity, such as Pericles and Socrates, have to develop dementia? None, according to newer research findings.

This fascinating research, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, was conducted by scientists at the University of Southern California and examined medical records dating back up to 2,500 years. According to the analysis of classical Greek and Roman medical texts, it is revealed that dementia was considered an extremely rare neurological disorder thousands of years ago.

Considering how widespread cognitive decline, severe memory loss and dementia are in modern society, the study authors say that today's dementia rates are due to the modern environment and lifestyle. More specifically, they add that a sedentary lifestyle and exposure to air pollution are likely the main culprits.

“The ancient Greeks had very, very few -- but we found them -- mentions of something that would be like mild cognitive impairment,” said lead researcher Caleb Finch, a professor with the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “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.”

Even so many years ago, the ancient Greeks recognised that with aging often comes memory problems, which we recognise today as mild cognitive impairment. Professor Dr Finch and co-author Dr Stanley Burstein, a California State University, Los Angeles historian, analysed an extensive body of ancient medical writings compiled by Hippocrates, considered the father of medicine, and his followers. This text lists and describes numerous conditions known to develop in the elderly, such as deafness, dizziness, and digestive disorders. Memory loss, however, was completely absent.

The second greatest Greek physician of antiquity, after Hippocrates, and the last chronologically of all the important physicians of the Greco-Roman world, Galen, reported that at the age of 80, some people begin to find it difficult to learn new things.

Accordingly, a Roman author, Pliny the Elder, once recorded that the senator and famous orator Valerius Messala Corvinus forgot his name. Even the great Cicero wisely observed that "senile folly ... is characteristic of irresponsible old men, but not of all old men."

Researchers speculate that as Roman cities became denser and pollution increased, this led to an increase in cases of cognitive decline. In addition, Roman aristocrats commonly used lead utensils and even added lead acetate to their wine to sweeten it.

Today, we know that lead is a poisonous neurotoxin.

It is worth noting that even then, some ancient writers recognised the toxicity of materials containing lead. Some scholars even argue that lead poisoning was partly responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire.

Maria Katopouli is a columnist for Ygeiamou.

READ MORE: Artichokes: An Ancient Greek Remedy.

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