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What Can the Ancient Greeks Tell Us About Cognitive Decline?

In a recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) have presented compelling evidence suggesting that Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias may be largely modern phenomena, influenced significantly by today’s environments and lifestyles. The study, led by Caleb Finch, professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, delves into classical Greek and Roman medical texts, revealing a scarcity of severe memory loss.

The analysis highlights a stark contrast between ancient times and today, pointing out that while the ancient Greeks and Romans did experience what we now recognize as mild cognitive impairment (MCI), instances of advanced dementia were extremely rare. According to Finch, “The ancient Greeks had very, very few—but we found them—mentions of something that would be like mild cognitive impairment.”

This rarity of dementia in ancient civilizations supports the hypothesis that modern lifestyle factors, such as sedentary behavior and exposure to air pollution, play significant roles in these diseases today.

The research also sheds light on the potential impact of environmental factors on cognitive health. Finch speculates that the increase in cases of cognitive decline in ancient Rome might be attributed to higher pollution levels and the use of lead in cooking vessels, water pipes, and even as a sweetener in wine. These practices exposed Roman aristocrats to the known neurotoxin, possibly contributing to cognitive impairments.

To further support their findings, the USC researchers drew parallels with the Tsimane Amerindians of the Bolivian Amazon, a modern-day population living a preindustrial lifestyle similar to that of ancient civilizations. Remarkably, the Tsimane exhibit extremely low rates of dementia, with only about 1% suffering from the condition, compared to 11% of those aged 65 and older in the United States.

The USC-led study offers a valuable insight on how lifestyle can influence our cognitive health. We know there are certain factors we can’t control. Here are several proactive steps you can take to maintain and even improve your cognitive health:

1. Stay physically active.

Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week, combined with muscle-strengthening exercises on two or more days a week.

2. Maintain a healthy diet.

Adopt a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Diets such as the Mediterranean or DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) have been linked to a lower risk of cognitive decline. These diets emphasize healthy fats, like those found in olive oil and fish, while limiting saturated fats and sugars.

3. Engage in mental stimulation.

Challenging your brain with mental exercises can improve brain health. Activities like reading, puzzles, games, learning a new language, or playing a musical instrument can stimulate the brain and may reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

4. Get quality sleep.

Poor sleep patterns have been linked with cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night. Establish a regular bedtime routine, limit screen time before bed, and create a comfortable sleep environment.

5. Manage stress.

Chronic stress can lead to cognitive issues. Techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing exercises, and yoga can help manage stress levels.

6. Avoid tobacco and limit alcohol consumption.

Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline. Quitting smoking and reducing alcohol intake can significantly reduce this risk.

7. Stay socially engaged.

Social interaction helps ward off depression and stress, both of which can contribute to memory loss. Volunteer, join a club or group, spend time with friends and family, or participate in community activities to stay engaged.

8. Protect your head.

Head injuries can increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Wear appropriate protective gear during sports or physical activities; make your living environment safer to prevent falls.

9. Be proactive with your brain health.

Consider participating in brain-health workshops or programs that focus on memory, problem-solving, and other cognitive training exercises.

Adopting these lifestyle changes can not only improve your overall health but also enhance your brain’s resilience against cognitive decline. We may not live in Ancient Rome, but it’s never too late to start making choices that positively affect your cognitive health.

Source: IlluminAge AgeWise