Hardening Of Human Arteries Turns Out To Be A Very Old Story | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

NPR : News

Filed Under:

Hardening Of Human Arteries Turns Out To Be A Very Old Story

Going "paleo" may not be the answer to heart disease, after all.

A few years ago, a team of researchers challenged our understanding of heart disease as a modern affliction. They found evidence of hardened arteries in the CT scans of ancient Egyptian mummies.

It was a little surprising since our predecessors didn't have fried chicken or cars.

Some critics claimed that because of their high socioeconomic status the Egyptians studied had probably been pretty sedentary and had probably eaten a diet of rich foods— a lot like many of us today. The prevalence of hardened arteries in those mummies surely couldn't be expected in all ancient Egyptians, or across all ancient cultures, the skeptics reasoned.

Well, the same research team did another study, broadening the the analysis to include mummies from three other preindustrial populations: 51 ancient Peruvians, five Ancestral Puebloans of the U.S. Southwest and five Unangan of Alaska's Aleutian Islands. They also included 76 more ancient Egyptians.

"We expanded our search to other mummies on other continents, in other cultures and found something similar," says Randall Thompson, a cardiologist and co-author of the The Lancet study.

Ultimately, calcium deposits signifying atherosclerosis were not hard to find across the four different cultures. More than a third of the 137 mummies showed signs of probable or definite hardened arteries, with 25 cases of calcification in the walls of preserved arteries and another 24 along the expected course of an artery.

The results strengthened the researchers' previous claim that even if modern humans emulated preindustrial life, hardened arteries couldn't necessarily be avoided.

"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."

The research brought together experts in cardiology, archaeology, anthropology, paleopathology and biology from around the world. "All brought expertise and were able to tell me things about the people that we were scanning that went above and beyond what we could tell from the CT scans," Thompson says. "It was like they became our patients."

From here, the team wants to stay on the mystery and delve into possible risk factors for these ancestors, possibly examining tissue or genetic samples, Thompson says. "We're trying to reach back as far as we can for the origins of this disease because it impacts modern people so much."

Even so, Dr. Mike Knapton, of the British Heart Foundation, told The Associated Press, that calcified arteries could also be caused by other health problems and that it wasn't possible to say from the CT scans alone whether the calcium deposits in the mummies would have triggered heart attacks or strokes. "It's a fascinating study but I'm not sure we can say atherosclerosis is an inevitable part of aging," he said.

Thompson, for his part, says that the mummy findings don't invalidate any of the current research associating unhealthy diets, a lack of exercise, and smoking with heart disease. "There are certainly diets and lifestyles that are healthier than others and we should advocate those."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

'Little House,' Big Demand: Never Underestimate Laura Ingalls Wilder

Wilder's memoir reveals that she witnessed more violence than you'd ever know from her children's books. The South Dakota State Historical Society can barely keep up with demand for the autobiography.
NPR

Coffee Horror: Parody Pokes At Environmental Absurdity Of K-Cups

The market for single-serving coffee pods is dominated by Keurig's K-Cups. But they aren't recyclable, and critics say that's making a monster of an environmental mess. Meet the K-Cup Godzilla.
WAMU 88.5

Maryland's Biggest Campaign Donors Didn't Get Results In 2014

A lot of dollars from big donors went toward Democrat Anthony Brown's loss in the gubernatorial election.

WAMU 88.5

Concerns About Digital Snooping Spur Bipartisan Legislative Push In Va.

Former state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and the ACLU are supporting legislation that would limit the ability of law-enforcement and regulatory agencies to collect information and build databases without a warrant.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.