Cardiovascular Disease

Oh, these ancient arteries…

We like to place blame on the modern, Westernized lifestyle for the emergence of cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of death in developed countries. Cardiovascular risk factors such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and hypercholesterolemia (high blood lipids) are associated with, among other poor lifestyle factors, physical inactivity and an unhealthy diet high in salt, saturated fat, and sugar. However, a recent post on NPR’s health blog reports a startling finding from an unusual patient population: the mummies.

In this excellent example of forensic physiology, researchers took CT scans of mummies from various geographic regions, cultures, diets,mummy lifestyles and climates: Egyptians, Peruvians, U.S. Southwest Puebloans, and Alaskan Unangans. A CT scan, a common medical test used on living (as well as apparently long-dead) humans, is a process that utilizes computer-processed X-rays to measure calcified deposits in arteries that indicate the presence of atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease. Surprisingly, fully 1/3 of the mummies showed signs of “probable or definite hardened arteries.”  In other words, heart disease risk may transcend differences in obvious lifestyle factors and instead be part of the intrinsic aging process.

Now, we know today that certain diets, physical activity patterns and health behaviors promote better cardiovascular health, and we should continue to follow them because they have extensive health benefits. But can they fully prevent the atherosclerotic process that precipitates cardiac events? The mummies seem to moan no, suggesting that researchers need to continue to unravel the complex risk factors contributing to cardiovascular disease progression (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!).

A final note…when I was talking to my colleague, the Director of the Radiology program at UHart, about this research study, he casually disclosed that HE used to scan ancient remains for the Metropolitan Museum of Art! I now feel kind of stupid about the time I decried I’d cover his class “over my dead body…”


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