Medical texts from 2,500 years ago rarely mention severe memory loss, suggesting today’s widespread dementia stems from modern environments and lifestyles, a new USC analysis shows at

Aristotle statue located at Stageira of Greece

The key points from the article on USC Today titled "Did the ancient Greeks and Romans experience Alzheimer’s?" are as follows:

  • The article discusses a new USC analysis of classical Greek and Roman medical texts, suggesting that severe memory loss, which is now prevalent, was extremely rare 2,000 to 2,500 years ago. This finding supports the notion that Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are diseases of modern environments and lifestyles, particularly due to sedentary behavior and exposure to air pollution.
  • Ancient Greeks recognized that aging brought memory issues resembling mild cognitive impairment (MCI), but there were no mentions of severe memory loss, speech, and reasoning problems characteristic of Alzheimer’s and other dementias in their medical texts.
  • In ancient Rome, there were mentions of cognitive decline among the elderly, with Galen noting difficulty in learning new things at 80 and Pliny the Elder mentioning the famous orator Valerius Messalla Corvinus forgetting his name. These mentions suggest a progression from the Greeks to the Romans in terms of cognitive impairment.
  • The research suggests that as Roman cities grew and pollution increased, cases of cognitive decline also rose. Roman aristocrats' use of lead in cooking vessels, water pipes, and wine is speculated to have contributed to lead poisoning, which could have accelerated cognitive decline.
  • The study utilized the Tsimane Amerindians of the Bolivian Amazon as a model for ancient aging, given the lack of demographic data for ancient Greece and Rome. The Tsimane have a preindustrial lifestyle with very low rates of dementia, indicating that environmental factors significantly influence the risk of dementia.

The research was supported by the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund and the National Institutes of Health, aiming to provide insights into the causes and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias