Strange, isn't it, that the dead are still making news after 5000 years of silence? This happened Sunday, when a multidisciplinary team of researchers presented their results at the American College of Cardiology meeting in San Francisco. The Lancet, considered one of the world's premier medical journals, published their article online yesterday.
Instead of using live subjects or current cadavers, the interdisciplinary research team examined CT scans of remains from four disparate populations of prehistoric humans: 76 Egyptian, 51 Peruvian, five Ancestral Puebloan, and five preagricultural Unangan Aleutians.
The scientists and physicians aimed to evaluate these populations for atherosclerosis by identifying calcification in the arteries of the remains. When scientists found heart and arterial disease in Egyptian mummies several decades ago, initial excitement quickly turned to skepticism. Many believed the results were ambiguous because the Egyptian dead were thought to have been wealthy enough to have afforded rich and unconventional diets.
Until recently, physicians attributed atherosclerotic vascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in the developed world today, to our sedentary modern lifestyles and Western diets high in fat, salt, and red meat.
However, imaging of the Bronze Age Alpine "Iceman," presumably someone with a very different lifestyle from those of the ancient Egyptians, also turned up calcificied arteries. Researchers needed more proof to generalize about people of the past.
They found it in the wider cardiovascular imaging study just reported. The new research shows that atherosclerotic vascular disease, a major killer, was also very common in disparate human populations of millennia past. More than one-third of the 137 bodies scanned had some calcification in their arteries.
"The presence of atherosclerosis in premodern human beings suggests that the disease is an inherent component of human aging and not associated with any specific diet or lifestyle," the researchers concluded. Unable to pin cardiovascular disease solely on unhealthy modern habits, scientists need to look farther into its possible causes.
This research represents a major medical discovery. We should not be quick to abandon physical exercise, our cholesterol-lowering diets, and statin drugs, though, because the study does nothing to refute their effectiveness. It may help us feel a little less guilty when we're confronted on birthdays with premium ice cream and huge slices of cake.
The study was supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Paleocardiology Foundation, the National Bank of Egypt, Siemens, and St. Luke's Hospital Foundation of Kansas City.
Based in Chicago, Sandy Dechert has been covering women's health for Examiner.com since the webzine's official startup. She followed the creation and progress of the Affordable Care Act of 2010. Sandy has also reported on birth control, the 2012-2013 influenza epidemic, top women's health news of 2012, and the fungal meningitis outbreaks.
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