A modern chimera: Dementia in antiquity

Institute for the History of Medicine and Medical Ethics, University of Cologne, Germany

OBJECTIVE: This poster disproves recently published studies which presume that the ancient Greeks developed a medical notion of dementia.

METHOD: We analyzed classical medical and philosophical treatises including key authors such as Plato, Aristotle, "Hippocrates" and Galen. We also examined almost a millennium (400 BC to 400 AD) of various relevant literary texts.

RESULTS: Ancient medical texts did not contain any description or classification remotely comparable to the modern meaning of dementia. A few literary sources mention dementia-like states with regret or in the context of fighting the mental decline associated with old age.

CONCLUSION: Greco-Roman physicians ignored dementia because elderly people were rare (less than 3% of the population was older than sixty-five), progressive cognitive impairment was not part of medical theory and the physician’s primary role was to treat conditions with positive therapeutics. Before the relatively recent medicalization of old age, intellectual decline was considered normal. Although the word ‘dementia’ is ancient, its contemporary meaning and conceptualization originated as late as 1700. Further studies, including a computerized key-word search of ancient literature, are necessary to evaluate the personal fates and social roles of individuals suffering from diminished cognitive abilities more precisely.

Session VI -- Poster Session 1
Monday, 28 June 2004, 9:00 - 9:30 am

Ninth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Montreal, Quebec, Canada