The history of Alzheimer's disease and its impact on senility in Brazil


Instituto de Psiquiatria, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Av. Vences Laubras 7, 22290-140 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Tel. 021-2751122


Considering the history of Alzheimer's disease we can distinguish three periods : 1. Discovery : This period lasted from the first article written by Alois Alzheimer and published in 1906, where he described a case of the pre-senile form of dementia, until more or less 1920. A new visibility due to the description of plaques and tangles in the brain helped to officialize the new category which was named as such by Kraepelin in 1910; 2. Invisibility : During the period between 1920 and 1960 this category entered a "latency period" as it is often described in psychiatric textbooks and when, nevertheless, authors like Rothschild and others understood senile dementia as resulting from a combination of hardship in life and certain personality traits and, 3. Rediscovery : The famous Newcastle study which showed during the 1960's - although not convincingly - a correlation between density of senile plaques in the brain and severity of dementia, renewed the interest in Alzheimer's disease by a new visibility which from then on, theoretically, could be quantified.

It was Robert Butler who was responsible for the adoption of the pre- and the senile form of a certain type of dementia under the label of Alzheimer's disease - not only for scientific but also for political and economic reasons. Alzheimer's now involved young "victims" ("you don't have to be old to join the club" R. Porter) and an ever growing number of elderly, reaching dimensions of an epidemic, the so-called "disease of the century" - at least in societies where cognitive functionality is highly valued.

In Brazil, Alzheimer's as a category only arrives in 1990 and "semantic contagion" (I. Hacking) is still limited. Senility in this country means the result of a life of hardship and persons with Alzheimer's almost always are described as someone with a closed-up personality, not able of dealing with life's stress and strain - reminiscent of authors like Rothschild during the "period of invisibility".

We try to discuss the consequences which the imported concept of "Alzheimer's" has on traditional concepts of senility.


Panel 2B   (Developing History)
Tuesday, 14 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999