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Ancient theory of heart disease
Clogged arteries have always been thought of as a symptom of an unhealthy modern lifestyle.
However, a recent discovery of atherosclerosis in CT of mummies from ancient civilizations suggests the picture is incomplete.
“Atherosclerosis (AS) is a chronic, systemic, and multifactorial disease. Risk factors contribute to initial arterial injury and subsequent response, which leads to AS,” said Dr. Satinder Singh, Professor of Radiology and Medicine at UAB.
As the progression of the plaque continues, the coronary artery lumen narrows and the patients become symptomatic.
If, however, an exercise regimen is maintained, there is an increased blood flow along the coronary arteries to the heart and the patients may remain asymptomatic.
During atherosclerosis, the arteries become narrowed and hardened through a accumulation of cholesterol. This causes ineffective transportation of oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body, which can lead to heart disease.
Lifestyle choices that include smoking, low physical activity, consumption of diets high in salt, cholesterol, and fats, and a the high use of alcohol place people at risk for heart disease.
The discovery of clogged arteries during a CT scan of a population of ancient Egyptians is not as surprising as it may seem.
Though risk factors for heart disease are due to modern diets, the lifestyles of the mummies were similar. This is because only the elite were mummified, therefore, they could afford the excesses that put one at risk of heart disease.
To make sure that the population was not an anomaly with a diet high in rich foods, researchers performed CT scans on a greater variety of ancient civilizations who consumed different foods. This included a survey of populations of ancient Peruvian, Peublians, and Unangan peoples.
Including such a broad range of civilizations makes certain that the presence of atherosclerosis is not just a fluke.
The findings show an overwhelming level of heart disease almost equal to that of modern populations.
The finding of atherosclerosis in these ancient civilizations may have not been caused by the same reasons. Factors such as the inhalation of smoke or chronic infection may have also caused the disease in these ancient populaces.
Finding atherosclerotic calcification in coronary and carotid arteries in mummies of different locations and descents suggest that there may be additional risk factors in heart disease. This may incite more interest and research in this area. This information may be more useful for younger population where heart disease is in its early stages.
The implications of such a discovery are broad, as it had been previously believed that heart disease had been caused by high levels of fat in blood, indicative of the unhealthy lifestyle carried on by the modern man.
Reducing the risk factors for heart disease to lifestyle choices does not represent the whole picture. While it may be a contributing factor, other the causes of heart disease must be evaluated.
“This information may be more useful for younger at risk populations where disease is in its early stages,” reports Dr. Singh.
“On the same note, we should not abandon the current thinking of preventive cardiology emphasizing healthy eating and lifestyle.”
Our knowledge of the risk factors which lead to atherosclerosis is incomplete. Though lifestyle choices influence the disease, they do not represent the entire picture of what causes heart disease.