The history of dementia is probably as old as mankind itself. In recent years, considerable advances have been made in our understanding of the epidemiology, the pathogenesis and the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease (AD) and related disorders, and the nosology of these disorders is under scrutiny. Furthermore, we are witnessing the emergence of therapeutic agents specifically designed to enhance memory and cognition in AD patients. Despite the limited efficacy of the agents currently available, their introduction has shed an entirely new light on the field. We therefore feel that this is a good time to look at the past to understand the present and perhaps gain insight into the future. This paper reviews the history of dementia and of attitudes about dementia as documented in early medical writings, in recorded history and in the arts. It also examines developments that occurred in Alois Alzheimer's time as well as closer to our day.