Modern Lifestyles Not to Blame for Heart Disease, Say Researchers


Modern Lifestyles Not to Blame for Heart Disease, Say Researchers

If you’ve been thinking of heart disease as a modern ailment, brought on by sedentary lifestyles and rich diets, you’re not alone. If you’re one of the more than 26 million American adults who are diagnosed with heart disease, you may even go so far as to blame yourself for your condition. If you had eaten better, or exercised more, you might tell yourself, you wouldn’t be in this position.

But new research on mummies from five different primitive and ancient cultures tells a different story. Atherosclerosis, the narrowing and hardening of the arteries that is the main symptom of heart disease, is an illness as old as mankind itself — and even without fast food and televisions, chances are good that many of us would still develop the heart disease that sends so many searching for affordable heart medications from a Canadian pharmacy. Other factors, like constantly inhaling wood smoke from cooking fires and constantly battling infections, contributed to heart disease for people of the past.

Atherosclerosis Found in Mummies from Five Cultures

Several years ago, researchers studying Egyptian mummies found that these ancient dead suffered from significant hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis. Of course, those ancient Egyptians who could afford the mummification process were wealthy. They could probably also afford to eat rich, fatty diets and spend a lot of their time lounging around. That probably explains why these ancient remains displayed clear signs of heart disease, right?

Several years ago, researchers studying Egyptian mummies found that these ancient dead suffered from significant hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis. Of course, those ancient Egyptians who could afford the mummification process were wealthy. They could probably also afford to eat rich, fatty diets and spend a lot of their time lounging around. That probably explains why these ancient remains displayed clear signs of heart disease, right?

Wrong, say researchers on the Horus mummy research team. These researchers examined autopsy data on mummies from five world cultures — ancient Egypt, Peru, the American Southwest, the Aleutian Islands and Mongolia. While it’s true that the 76 Egyptian mummies included in the study probably enjoyed lives of luxury, the other mummies were not so lucky during their lifetimes.

The 51 Peruvians, five Native Americans, five Aleutian Islanders and the small number of Mongolians were mummified through natural processes, by being left in either very dry or very cold environments. There were no aromatic oils or complex preservation processes for these mummies, who were representatives of the common people in their respective societies. Each of them lived primitive lifestyles, from the nomadic society of the Mongolians of the Gobi Desert, to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Aleutian Islanders and Native Americans, to the more agricultural but no less strenuous lifestyles of the Peruvians.

Despite their presumably high levels of activity and low-fat, low-sugar diets, the Horus researchers found that, regardless of culture and lifestyle differences, all of the ancient mummies showed high rates of atherosclerosis. Why? Even in the absence of modern risk factors like lack of exercise, obesity and tobacco use, researchers theorize that ancient peoples may have lived with some heart disease risk factors of their own.

Wood Smoke, Inflammation to Blame for Ancient Heart Disease

Wood Smoke, Inflammation to Blame for Ancient Heart Disease

The ancient and primitive peoples studied may not have had access to tobacco or fast food hamburgers, but that doesn’t mean their daily lives were free of heart disease risk factors.

Wood fires, for example, played a prominent role in ancient life — ancient people used them to cook fires, stay warm and drive off bothersome insects and wild animals. Inhaling wood smoke from cook and warming fires all day long can be just as bad for your heart as smoking cigarettes or living with excessive air pollution. The fact that the ancient women seemed more vulnerable to hardening and narrowing of the arteries than the men seems to confirm researchers’ suspicion that wood smoke could have contributed to ancient heart disease, since women would have been the ones hovering near fires the longest as they cooked daily meals.

Inflammation could be another contributing factor in ancient heart disease. People living in ancient and primitive societies obviously didn’t have the medical knowledge and access to health care that modern people do, and they didn’t have the understanding of infection and infestation necessary to avoid them. As a result, these ancient mummies must have experienced frequent infections and infestations while alive — one Egyptian mummy, a teenage boy named Nakht, was found in 1974 to have suffered from no less than four parasitic infestations.

Today, it’s known that chronic inflammation can spark and accelerate heart disease. Frequent infections and parasitic infestations would have caused the same kind of chronic inflammation in ancient people that conditions like rheumatoid arthritis cause in people today, hastening the development and progression of heart disease.

Researchers also point out that genetics plays a stronger role in heart disease than many people realize. “Genetics may account for about half of the risk of heart disease,” said Dr. Gregory Thomas, lead author of the study and medical director of the Memorial Care Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in California.

Of course, none of this means that you shouldn’t try to take care of your heart. Exercising regularly, avoiding tobacco and eating a healthy diet can go a long way toward controlling the risk factors responsible for heart disease. You have some things these ancient mummies didn’t — namely, the ability to control your environment, and access to the best medical care in human history.