Quinn on Nutrition: Lessons on heart disease from the ancients

April 27, 2015

Ancient Egyptians ate fish, birds, barley, dates, olives, beans, onions, cucumbers and food from domesticated cattle, sheep and goats.

Peruvians of old caught fish, hunted birds, deer and guinea pigs, farmed corn, potatoes and beans and raised alpaca for food and clothing.

Ancestral Native American Puebloans foraged on fish, rabbit, corn, squash, nuts, acorns, deer and big horn sheep.

Ancient Aleutian Islanders subsisted on fish, birds, wild berries, seals, sea otters and whales.

What did these preindustrial cultures have in common? Their average age of death was around 43 years. And many of them had heart disease.

We learned these facts at a presentation on a recent evening by Dr. Gregory S. Thomas, Medical Director of the Heart and Vascular Institute at Long Beach Memorial Hospital in California. His team of researchers used modern CT (computed tomographic) scanners to look for signs of heart disease in 137 mummies ó preserved bodies of people who lived 3000 years B.C.

Along with learning this fascinating information, we were treated to a mummy-themed menu prepared by Dale Evans of Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula: Icelandic cod, ancient grain and vegetable salad, and chocolate eclairs that did indeed look like ancient mummy caskets.

Dr. Thomas described how ó with the same detection tools used today ó his research team found calcified plaque in the walls of arteries in a good proportion of these long preserved specimens. "People have had atherosclerosis (calcium deposits in arteries) for a long, long time," he concluded.

What does that say about diet recommendations to reduce our risks for this condition?

"I donít know what to eat anymore," Thomas halfway joked. "We havenít found any ancient people who were vegetarians. They ate what they could find. We want to believe that we can go back to natureÖ."

Still, Thomas concurs with current knowledge that up to 50 percent of heart disease risk comes from our parents ó what we inherited in our genetic material. "Clearly, there are genes that promote atherosclerosis and those that donít."

The other half of our susceptibility comes from controllable risk factors such as smoking, lack of physical activity and poor diet.

Inflammation may play a role as well, Thomas explained as he showed a head scan of an ancient Egyptian scribe with really bad tooth decay. "These people had a lot of infections.

"We are too smug if we think we have figured out all the causes (of heart disease), however," he added. He suspects there are other unknowns out there that increase our risk for this disease.

So, is heart disease just a normal part of aging? The appearance of heart disease across cultures of diverse diets and lifestyles certainly seems to indicate that, states Dr. Randall C. Thompson, lead author of the published study on this research. But he underscores the need for each of us to manage the risk factors over which we can control, namely our lifestyle choices.

Can we throw our diet manuals out the window? Probably not, say these heart experts. "Regardless of the cause," Thomas concluded, "humans are all fundamentally at risk (for heart disease). So it behooves us to take care of ourselves and do whatever we can to decrease the risk."

Sounds like age-old advice




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