The Ancient Roots of Heart Disease

Posted on Friday, March 22nd, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
link Categories: Long Term Science   chat 0 Comments


We often think of heart disease as a by-product of modernity: for decades, the medical establishment has warned that too little exercise and too much fried food can clog our arteries and disrupt healthy circulation.

That’s still the case, but new research suggests that atherosclerosis might be older and more common that we thought. As NPR’s blog recently reported, our sedentary lifestyle of cars and hamburgers might not necessarily be entirely to blame.

Several years ago, a group of researchers found evidence of hardened arteries in a group of ancient Egyptian mummies. Intrigued, they recently looked at mummies from other civilizations as well – and found calcified arteries among more than a third of their sample. NPR quotes Randall Thompson, one of the study’s co-authors:

“It’s amazing that you can see this disease in all these different populations across 4,000 years of history, across three continents – such a wide span across the globe and all sorts of different diets and lifestyles and climates,” Thompson says. “Our conclusion is that, in large part, heart disease is part of human ageing and that we have risk factors that we don’t understand yet.”

These findings confront medical science with a whole new conundrum: if modernity doesn’t cause heart disease, what does? Thompson’s team has taken this as their cue for more historical research. We know some of the common contemporary risk factors, but a broader understanding of heart disease may lie in a deep look at the health of our ancestors.

  • Maybe they’re just looking at a biased sample. Arguably, all those who eventually were mummified were part of the elite of their society. And as members of the elite, maybe they were just enjoying a life with too little exercise and too rich diets compared to others?

  • Michelle

    My thoughts exactly Well said Bernard. What we want is a Peat bog man or ice encased woman (well more than one to be statistically viable) to show us the every-man occurrence of the disease.

  • Doc Hall

    It would be interesting to tie this to the diet of a mummy if possible. Two working hypotheses on atherosclerosis is that eating too much animal protein, especially red meat, is a causal factor. Another is that it is the result of long, low-level microbial infection. A conjecture is that these two hypotheses may be related.

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