In her cover story last week, Camilla Cavendish argued that we could keep mentally fit in old age through ‘physical exercises, social contact and new challenges’. The ancients reached a similar conclusion 2,500 years ago.
When the Roman poet Juvenal (2nd century ad) reflected on what a man should pray for, his first suggestion was a healthy mind in a healthy body. That had already been standard doctrine for 600 years. The historian Herodotus (5th century bc) noted how many different peoples saw a connection between diet, drink, exercise and lifespan; and it was Greek doctors who argued that mental health also came into the equation.
Others then joined in. Socrates pointed out many people ‘do not think straight because their body is not in good health’. Aristotle (4th century bc) concluded holistically that exercise was vital for all-round harmonious mental and physical capacity. The essayist of Makrobioi (‘Long Lives’), writing to a friend, named 66 famous Greeks who had led long and very productive lives and urged him ‘to observe your similarity to these long-lived men in condition and fortune, imitate them and make your life at once long and healthy to a high degree’.
In his well-known dialogue On Old Age, Cicero (1st century bc) gave his recipe for staying mentally fit. Using Cato the Elder as his mouthpiece, he explained that soundness of mind depended on applying one’s energies to something of interest, since strength of mind, not of the body, was what counted. A man devoted to mental activity and keeping his memory sharp (‘my running track for the brain,’ said Cato) did not notice the advance of old age: he praised the Greek wise man Solon for ‘learning something new every day’. Conversation and companionship were equally vital: Cato claimed that he regularly discussed all manner of subjects with neighbours late into the night.
What was new about Cavendish’s piece was the potential for computer games to improve brain function in old age. That sounds a high price to pay. Cato the Elder learned ancient Greek.