An article on the history of dementia lists the somewhat odd causes for the degenerative brain condition as given by the pioneering French psychiatrist Jean Etienne Esquirol in 1838:
Menstrual disorders, Sequelae [consequences] of delivery, Head injuries, Progression of age, Ataxic fever, Hemorrhoids surgery, Mania and monomania, Paralysis, Apoplexy, Syphilis, Mercury abuse, Dietary excesses, Wine abuse, Masturbation, Unhappy love, Fears, Political upheavals, Unfulfilled ambitions, Poverty, Domestic problems
Although there are clearly some rather bizarre causes in the list, it’s worth noting that 19th century physicians didn’t always make a clear distinction between different forms of perceived ‘madness’ and had little grasp of what contributed to mental instability.
However, the list was clearly a big advance from the causes put forward by the Ancient Greek writer Solon who said dementia was caused by “physical pain, violence, drugs, old age or the persuasion of a woman”!
Dementia is actually a decline in mental function that happens more quickly than would be expected from normal ageing and is usually accompanied by clearly detectable neurological degeneration – such as in Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia.
Link to locked academic article on the history of dementia.
2 thoughts on “Unlikely causes of dementia”
Actually the list described above cannot really be called strange from an historical point of view. If you look at the early work of the phrenologists – people like Gall and Spurzheim – this list is instantly recognizable. Spurzheim’s book on insanity lists very similar causes. There is, in addition, the fact that even in the 1830s, the new pathological-anatomical revolution in medicine was so new that there were generations of physicians who thought about medical problems in terms the humoral model of medicine. The list you give here could have easily been pulled from George Cheyne’s “The English Malady.” You see similar considerations showing up in Parkinson’s treatise on the shaking palsy. Add into this context: a rich milieu of nascent capitalism, new nationalisms, and industrialization, and it becomes easy to see how the rapid transformation of society and culture in France, Britain, and other places would have concerned figures like Esquirol.