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What Causes Heart Disease?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I find this to be extremely interesting… for a number of reasons:

Heart disease is supposedly a modern affliction, the result of a diet rich in animal fat and too many hours spent on the sofa. But recent discoveries suggest that strokes and heart attacks may have been bedeviling humans for millenia.

Dr. Greg Thomas is part of a team of scientists that recently discovered the earliest known case of atherosclerosis — clogged arteries — in ancient Egyptian mummies. The startling findings mean scientists may not understand heart disease as well as they think they do.

Thomas tells Weekend All Things Considered host Linda Wertheimer that his team began by running mummies through a CT scanner.

“Our hypothesis was that they wouldn’t have [heart disease], because they were active, their diet was much different, they didn’t have tobacco,” he says.

But they were wrong.

One of the mummies the team scanned was a princess in her 40s, who presumably ate fresh food and wasn’t sedentary. “That she would have atherosclerosis,” Thomas says, “I think we’re missing a risk factor. Right now we know that high blood pressure, smoking, cholesterol, inactivity and other things cause athersosclerosis, but I think that we’re less complete than we think.”

Ancient Egyptians did have access to meat, though Thomas says their diet consisted mostly of grains, fruits and vegetables.

The subjects the team studied belonged to an elite class; working people didn’t merit mummification. Thomas says the legendary inbreeding of Egypt’s royal families probably had little to do with the incidence of heart disease, however.

“We found the atherosclerosis over 2,000 years of time, and so there would be many different families who were the pharaohs or the ruling parties at the time … We think it’s common to the environment there, among the elite.”

Thomas says his team hopes to find some less-exalted mummies to scan. “But we’re suspicious that even the more middle-class persons, that they may well have had [heart disease]. But that’s research to be done.” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

…and all the paleo and gluten-free kids come running to the center of the field like they just scored a game-winning touchdown. I ain’t mad at y’all.

Considering what I know about cholesterol, fat and the mitigating factors surrounding blood pressure… I’m not surprised by this. Take it a step further, I think this is an interesting reflection on the African-American diet, as well… because our diet didn’t consist of grains to the degree it does now until the mid-20th century.

Needless to say… this is the perfect tie in for tomorrow’s post.

So… I know I’ve got brainiacs for readers. What do y’all think about this? What questions do you have? Let’s discuss!

UPDATE (10/14/13): For the follow up to this essay, and why paleo and gluten-free kids might feel a little vindicated, check here.

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Daphne April 11, 2011 - 10:13 PM

I think this is another nail in the coffin of what most of the American public (and medical community?) believes is true about health and nutrition. It would be interesting to see if more studies are done.

I read the first few comments after reading the article, and noticed the amount of experts ready to pounce on this and discredit any implications. Interesting how many medical and anthropological experts there were, lol.

T.R. April 12, 2011 - 2:33 PM

Hmmm, I thought I made a post to this yesterday…but it looks like it got lost in cyber space. I don’t think one study/discovery which still needs alot more information and work done with it can one rest any conclusion on. Most scientist will tell you the more they find out the more questions there are. 10 years from now there could be a whole reversal of thought about these mummies, even that it isn’t heart disease at all. My basic point: not enough information to make any conclusions one way or another about the issue of heart disease in ancient or modern time.

I know I don’t know everything (though I act as if I do :O): So what’s the “paleo and gluten-free kids” so happy about? Am I assuming there is a contingent that feels “grains/gluten” have something to do with heart disease?

Diva Dre April 12, 2011 - 4:37 PM

Things that make you go hhhhmmmm…I wonder what effect grains has on heart disease…maybe I’m missing it…

Xay April 13, 2011 - 8:31 AM

I think it’s interesting and has a lot of potential for future study. I’m not sure what the paleo and gluten free kids are so excited about – correlation does not equal causation.

Erika Nicole Kendall April 13, 2011 - 10:04 AM

It’s not about correlation and causation, here – it’s about another study highlighting that the original assumptions about the origins of (and, subsequently, treatment of) heart disease are a problem, and other causes need to be sought out. People have been saying this for a VERY long time and no one has listened. If it takes Egyptian mummies to bring people to realize that, then so be it, lol.

Xay April 13, 2011 - 4:05 PM

I agree about the changing assumptions about the causes of heart disease.

I just didn’t see the connection to paleo and gluten free crowd excitement when the actual published article (not the NPR story you linked to) makes only the most general assumptions about the cause and no link at all to grain in the diet. To me, it speaks more to a possible genetic predisposition than anything else.

Heather April 13, 2011 - 9:43 AM

Maybe she was part of the 5% that have heart disease by genetics – My father and grandfather both had it genetically (sp) another LARGE reason why I need to get my weight under control. My grandfather died at 36 and my father had a quadruple (sp) bypass at 47 – wasnt a smoker or drinker – nor obese. It is an interesting article though…..

Kami February 19, 2013 - 9:27 AM

I am waiting for more information but I do think that these scientists need to update the studies done about illnesses. Hopefully we will learn new information about our bodies because we must look at variety of things. The paleo and gluten free kids are excited because those diets exclude grains especially wheat and they still could consume meat.

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