Throughout History, Many Terms Used to Describe Dementia

by Dorian Martin Patient Advocate

Dad gets three different daily newspapers, so I'm always skimming them to see if I can find something interesting to share. One of the stories this morning described the Acosta family of Austin, TX. The story noted that the first identification of the disease was in 1982 when it attacked a mother of three young daughters. The mother was initially diagnosed with mad cow disease, but instead she had a rare, inherited form of Alzheimer's disease. Now two of the three daughters also have the same condition. One is 48, while the other is 38. Both of these sisters are in the process of losing their memory.

It's a horrific story, especially when thinking of the ages of these women as they battle this brain disease. But the other piece I found that was interesting was the misdiagnosis. That got me thinking about my own family tree. I had noticed that there a number of diagnoses showing up in my maternal genealogical records that actually seemed to indicate that relatives had some form of dementia. For instance, some relatives were described as being senile. Merriam-Webster describes "senility" as "the quality or state of being senile; specifically: the physical and mental infirmity of old age."

So if you're searching your family history for this condition, what should you look for? We're in luck because the Michigan Family History Network offers some other medical terms that were used in old records for dementia. These include:

  • Mania or acute mania, which involved any form of mental illness or dementia. In the 1880s, mania also was the term used to define severe insanity. Acute mania described the death when ta person had been hospitalized in a mental institution.

  • Softening of the brain, which was used to describe cerebral infarction, dementia, Alzheimer's, Old Timer's disease, cerebral hemorrhage and stroke. This phrase indicated a disruption in a person's thinking processes or in their nervous system. Diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson's also may have been labeled this way.

  • Domestic illness, which was used to describe mental breakdown, depression, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease or the after-effects caused by a stroke. This term also described any illness that made a person homebound so they needed constant care and support.

Another name that shows up is Old Timer's Disease. The Online Slang Dictionary of American, English and Urban Slang say this word is used to describe Alzheimer's disease.

And interestingly, researchers out of the University of California, Irvine wrote a paper published in 1998 suggesting that senile dementia dates back to ancient Rome and Greece. "Throughout history, many elderly individuals with unpredictable behavior were sequestered in institutions, and the line between mental disorders and senile dementia was hazy at best," they wrote, adding that the start of the 20th century marked a turning point for researchers and medical professionals since that was the point where Alzheimer's disease was identified.
For instance, in ancient Greece, the experts thought mental disturbances were caused by an imbalance in the systems of humors (the four cardinal body fluids) and qualities (hot, cold, wet, dry). By 1512, researchers had developed the ventricular systems, which gave the brain (instead of the heart) credit for mental processes.

The UCI researchers also pointed out that victims of witch trials probably included many people who had cognitive disorders, including elderly who had senile dementia. They also hypothesized that some people with Alzheimer's disease probably were institutionalized at asylums since they would display some behaviors that were similar to mental illness.

Dementia has been around for generations. We realize now that this type of brain issue is not the same as memory lapses in old age. The good news is that with the rapidly evolving technology, we're able to learn more about these brain conditions. And hopefully, these breakthroughs will lead not only to a better definition of various types of dementia, but ways to slow and even stop them.

Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

Austin American-Statesman. (2013). Early Alzheimer's family holds hope for researchers.

Berchtold, N.C., & Cotman, C. W. (1998). Evolution in the conceptualization of dementia and Alzheimer's disease: Greco-Roman period to the 1960s. ScienceDirect.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (Nd). Senility.

Michigan Family History Network. (Nd). Some medical terms used in old records.

The Online Slang Dictionary. (2011). Old-timer's disease.

Dorian Martin
Meet Our Writer
Dorian Martin

Dorian Martin writes about various topics for HealthCentral, including Alzheimer’s disease, diet/exercise, menopause and lung cancer. Dorian is a health and caregiving advocate living in College Station, TX. She has a Ph.D. in educational human resource development. Dorian also founded I Start Wondering, which encourages people to embrace a life-long learning approach to aging. She teaches Sheng Zhen Gong, a form of Qigong. Follow Dorian on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram at @doriannmartin.