Although details about dementia have recently started to emerge, the condition has a long documented history. There still isn’t a cure for the condition. But with modern medicine and aggressive research, dementia patients can now live a longer and more productive life.
But that hasn’t always been the case. For a long time, the condition was not properly understood, and people that suffered from it faced harsh treatment and were often ostracised from society.
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History has dotted documentations of dementia earlier than 2nd century BC Rome.
Some of the greatest minds in Ancient Greece, like Hippocrates, Plato, Pythagoras and Aristotle, all came to the same conclusion that symptoms of dementia were a natural part of ageing.
Pythagoras went even further to describe the distinct stages of life and noted that people at the age of 60 began to decay, and those that made it to 80 years reverted to the mental and physical state of a child.
Hippocrates, on his part, suggested that using Four Humours (black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm) could prevent dementia. These were in correspondence with moods like being sad, positive, calm and irritable.
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Later in the 2nd century, Galenus wrote about cognitive decline in old age and also expanded on the humours theory. At the time, they believed dementia was a result of someone taking too much black bile.
A Roman philosopher and statesman, Cicero encouraged people to fight senility by engaging with intellectual activity. This is still encouraged to date.
Celsus, a Roman encyclopaedist, was the first person to make the correlation between ageing symptoms and dementia. He used the term ‘dementatus’ to describe the condition showing symptoms of dementia. The term is derived from the Latin word ‘demens,’ meaning ‘out of your mind’ or ‘mad.’
In medieval times, people with dementia were often referred to as childlike and couldn’t control their senses. Around this time, the term ‘dementia’ was already in use deduced from Latin. It was believed that people with the condition couldn’t tell right from wrong.
There was a concern that by forgetting what one had done in life, their journey to heaven or hell could be delayed. At the time, little was known about neurological conditions, and they were often explained from a religious perspective.
In the 13th century, a miracle doctor called Roger Bacon concurred that dementia was a part of natural aging. However, he watered down this conclusion by also stating that it was a punishment from God for sin. Most people showing symptoms of dementia like aggression and change in personality were often diagnosed with being possessed by evil spirits.
Exorcism, death or being locked away were some of the potential cures that people showing the symptoms were subjected to.
In 1563, witchcraft was made a capital offence in Britain. Many of the people accused of witchcraft were mainly elderly women. Most of the women were easy to blame for poor harvest, illnesses and diseases.
At the time, religion was more popular than science, and most of the events were believed to be an act of God or the devil. Men and women with dementia were common scapegoats for witch hunters as well as outsiders. Given that the average age at the time was 40 years, older people often suspected of using supernatural means to live longer.
The forgetful nature of people who have dementia was also used against them as evidence that they have forgotten their alleged magical deeds.
From 1663 to 1681, an English doctor, Thomas Willis, published several books that went a long way in spreading accurate information on the brain and how it controls the mind and body. However, his books also claimed that the only way to balance the Four Humours was by vomiting and bleeding.
In the 19th century, dementia became a common diagnosis. The patients were admitted to mental or lunatic asylums. Most people suffering from dementia were considered mad or cognitively impaired and was never associated with old age. Admitting patients to these facilities was often to hide them from society.
Compared to other areas around the world, British asylums were more humane. Patients could help with gardening, exercise and do arts or keep pets in some of the facilities. Unfortunately, the practice of bleeding and vomiting as treatments were still practised, the scariest of them being lobotomies and electrocution.
In the late 1700s, there were new and radical ideas on treatments in asylums. He suggested that children required nurturing and caring instead of being chained like animals. The Retreat in York opened in 1796, was already practising this new type of treatment focusing on building moral character through paternal care and humane methods.
20th Century Breakthroughs
After many years of misconceptions, the 20th century was a turn-around point. It all started with a 1906 German physician Alois Alzheimer who made one of the biggest breakthroughs in understanding dementia. He inspected the brain of a deceased woman who had shown signs of aggression and paranoia.
The scientist discovered there was damage to the cerebral cortex, which he called tangles and plaques. This type of dementia would later be called Alzheimer’s disease in 1909. Following the gains made in understanding dementia, asylums were replaced by care and nursing homes in the 1930s.