March 1, 2024

Researchers Find that Ancient Greeks and Romans Rarely Experienced Severe Memory Loss Compared to Modern Times

In a new study led by the University of Southern California (USC), researchers analyzed classical Greek and Roman medical texts to gain insights into the prevalence of severe memory loss in ancient times. The findings suggest that diseases like Alzheimer’s and related daementias were extremely rare 2,000 to 2,500 years ago, unlike the epidemic levels we see today.

The research, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, supports the theory that Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are primarily caused by modern environments and lifestyles, including sedentary behavior and exposure to air pollution.

The study revealed that ancient Greeks had very few mentions of mild cognitive impairment, which is a condition closely related to memory loss. However, they did not experience major memory loss, speech impairment, or deteriorating reasoning abilities as seen in Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. The researchers believe that the progression from mild cognitive impairment to advanced dementia occurred between the time of the ancient Greeks and the Romans.

The research team, led by Caleb Finch, a University Professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, examined ancient medical writings by Hippocrates and his followers. While these texts documented various ailments of the elderly, such as deafness and digestive disorders, there was no mention of memory loss.

In ancient Rome, a few mentions of memory loss began to appear. Galen, a prominent Roman physician, noted that some people aged 80 years and above had difficulty learning new things. Pliny the Elder, a naturalist, mentioned a senator who forgot his own name. Cicero, a famous orator, also observed that senility was characteristic of irresponsible old men but not all elderly individuals.

The authors of the study suggest that environmental factors may be responsible for the increase in memory loss in ancient Rome compared to ancient Greece. They speculate that as Roman cities became more populated, pollution levels rose, leading to a higher prevalence of cognitive decline. Additionally, the use of lead cooking vessels, lead water pipes, and lead acetate in wine may have unintentionally poisoned the Roman aristocracy with neurotoxins.

It is important to note that while some ancient writers recognized the toxicity of lead-containing materials, little progress was made in addressing the issue until much later. Some researchers even attribute lead poisoning to the downfall of the Roman Empire.

To compensate for the lack of demographic data from ancient Greece and Rome, Finch turned to the Tsimane Amerindians, an Indigenous people living in the Bolivian Amazon, as a model for ancient aging. This unexpected approach allowed the researchers to gain valuable insights into the aging process in ancient civilizations.

Overall, this study sheds light on the rarity of severe memory loss in ancient Greece and Rome, suggesting that Alzheimer’s and related dementias are primarily modern diseases linked to our contemporary lifestyles and environments. Understanding the historical perspective of these conditions can provide valuable insights into their causes, prevention, and potential treatments.

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1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it