Heart Disease An Ancient Problem Too?

Typically, we think of heart disease as a modern problem. After all, it is the #1 killer of both men and women in today’s society. In fact, 1 out of 4 deaths in the United States is caused by heart disease. You would think with modern technology that we would have a clear understanding of what causes it and how to prevent it. Heart disease is typically attributed to lifestyle choices we make, such as eating a diet too high in fat, smoking cigarettes, and not exercising enough. We usually blame things like McDonald’s, Joe Camel, and 3,000-channel cable TV for the ubiquitous presence of heart disease in our society. But what if I told you that long before the time of fast food, cigarettes, and television, heart disease was still prevalent among humans?

Well that is exactly what a group of researchers recently discovered, turning what we think about heart disease right on its head and making scientists scratch their heads. Somewhere, Arsenio Hall is saying, “Things that make you go ‘Hmm’.” A group of researchers recently conducted CT scans on 137 mummies from four different cultures across the globe and found that 34%, more than 1/3, of them had evidence of atherosclerosis, the condition in which arteries harden and thicken and cause heart disease. The mummies came from Egypt, Peru, southwest America, and Alaska and were about 4,000 years old on average. These cultures all had very different diets, lifestyles, and climates, but still none of them escaped the fate of atherosclerosis. Previous studies had found that ancient Egyptians showed evidence of atherosclerosis, but because only the rich were mummified in Egypt, this left scientists without a representative sample. Perhaps those rich ancient Egyptians were eating many high-fat foods, not exercising, and instead telling other, lower-class people to either fan them with large palm fronds or go build a pyramid. But the mummies in this study were from cultures where mummification was not just for the rich, giving the researchers a much more representative sample of normal humans at the time.

So what do we make of the findings? We humans always need something or someone to blame, and if it isn’t the typical modern lifestyle choices like fast food, cigarettes, and being sedentary that causes heart disease, then what do we blame? These ancient mummies lived largely hunter-gatherer lifestyles, with varied and healthy diets, lots of exercise, and no smoking. So what caused their heart disease? Scientists don’t really know, which is what makes this such a provocative finding. Perhaps atherosclerosis is simply a natural part of human aging, and that it isn’t as preventable as we might think. But then again, modern scientific evidence points to lifestyle choices having a major impact on heart disease. Either way, the mummy findings definitely point to heart disease being a much more complex phenomenon than we may have previously thought. This may explain why some people eat a horrible diet, smoke like a chimney, sit on the couch 12 hours a day, and still don’t develop heart disease while other people with healthier lifestyles do develop heart disease. We also know that heart disease has a large inflammatory component to it, and that things like stress, immune system health, and genetics/family history play a major role as well. Perhaps disease and infections were common in these ancient cultures, leading to more inflammation and a weakened immune system which could have made the mummies extra vulnerable to atherosclerosis. And although cigarettes weren’t around thousands of years ago, many of these people did live in caves and use fire for warmth and cooking, which could have created enough smoke to have a cigarette-like effect for these ancient people.

Ultimately, these scientific findings with worldwide ancient mummies showing a prevalence of atherosclerosis leave us with more questions than answers. Clearly, atherosclerosis is not just a modern problem. That said, these findings aren’t a license to sit on your couch and binge eat fast food, chain smoke cigarettes, and watch a trashy reality TV marathon, as attractive as that may sound. But the mummy findings do point to atherosclerosis being a common, but still ultimately deadly, part of human aging. Its existence isn’t simply and solely attributable to a high-fat diet or lack of exercise. It is a complex and dynamic condition, exacerbated or alleviated by many different factors including diet, lifestyle, exercise, stress, alcohol and drug use, genetics, and family history. Perhaps the main point is that while atherosclerosis is a partially preventable disease that definitely does respond to lifestyle and diet changes, it is not entirely preventable. Thanks to the mummies, we now know this.

Article Courtesy:  Andrew Steingrube