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Imaging of Mummified Ancient Greenlanders Shows Evidence of Atherosclerosis Despite Healthy and Hearty Lifestyles

ORANGE and LOS ANGELES Counties, Calif., Jan. 7, 2020 /PRNewswire/ -- Gregory Thomas, M.D., globally recognized for leading research of mummies to search for signs of heart disease and pushing the boundaries of discovery, is senior author of a new study published in the American Medical Association's JAMA Network Open journal.

Dr. Thomas, a medical director of MemorialCare Health & Vascular Institute in Southern California, and fellow researchers sought evidence of atherosclerosis—fatty build-up of plaque in the walls of arteries—of Inuits, hunter-gatherers living 500 years ago in Greenland. The goal was to determine if the leading cause of U.S. deaths was prevalent centuries ago in people with healthy and hearty lifestyles.

High-resolution CT scanning was conducted at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital of mummies preserved at Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in nearby Cambridge. Ages ranged from 18 to 30, estimated from bone and dental development.

The scans revealed hardened calcium deposits in blood vessels of three of the four adults studied – signs of atherosclerosis seen in living humans and other mummies.

Atherosclerosis, the fundamental cause of heart attacks and most diseases of the heart, is attributed today to modern lifestyles. Yet Inuits ate a high omega 3, fish oil type diet and were active, spending much of their day hunting in Greenland's harsh environment.

The results potentially reverse a theory from 50 years ago by Danish researchers that high intake of marine animals rich in fish oil containing omega 3 fatty acids protected native Greenland Inuits from atherosclerosis.

The Inuits' waterproof dress was made from skins of animals they hunted. In winter they lived in huts, often subterranean, warmed by indoor fires with tunnel entrances to minimize the cold outside. During summers they moved to hunting grounds sleeping in sealskin tents.

In previous studies Dr. Thomas and fellow researchers found atherosclerosis present and common in mummies from ancient North and South America, Africa, Europe and Asia—up to 5,200 years ago beginning with the Iceman of the Tyrolean Alps. Of the 137 ancient mummies studied from Africa and North and South America, 34% had an arterial calcification. None consumed primarily marine-based diets rich in omega 3 fatty acids.

"The findings that atherosclerosis is common in young Greenlandic Inuits challenge our fundamental understanding of atherosclerosis and demonstrate that atherosclerosis is an inherent threat to humans," adds Dr. Thomas. "While atherosclerosis is a fundamental process of aging, it can be delayed."

The finding of atherosclerosis as common in Inuits demonstrates that even if an omega 3 diets is preventive, it is not totally effective.

"While our findings underscore the fact that atherosclerosis is a common disease, it is important to know that most cardiovascular events related to this condition can be prevented through aggressive lifestyle changes – such as a plant based diet, which minimizes processed foods, and exercise – as well as, at times, medications,"  says Ron Blankstein, M.D., co-author, director of Cardiac Computed Tomography and preventive cardiologist. at Brigham and Women's Hospital. "Importantly, we now have technology to image the heart and identify individuals who have atherosclerosis. The presence of such disease in the heart's arteries signifies increased risk of future heart disease and can have a significant impact on the use of various preventive therapies."

Dr. Thomas and his colleagues' research in modern societies, such as the indigenous Bolivian Tsimane tribe living an ancient lifestyle, demonstrates that very physically active lifestyles and low saturated fat diets can forestall atherosclerosis. While the Tsimane have telltale signs of atherosclerosis, they develop it late in life and to a much lesser degree than those in more developed societies.

Dr. Thomas leads the HORUS mummy research team, named after a prominent ancient Egyptian deity worshipped for protecting the dead. The team of cardiologists and other physician specialists and scientists collaborates with anthropologists of the Tsimane Health and Life History Project, meeting regularly searching for clues to why humans are prone to atherosclerosis.

"Global research on ancient ancestors highlights the threat of a disease impacting humans for thousands of years, behooving everyone to do what we can to prevent and delay atherosclerosis," says Dr. Thomas. "There is much an individual can do to prevent heart disease."

Recognizing this threat, American College of Cardiology, American Heart Association and global organizations established physical activity, dietary and preventive medication guidelines effective in staving off atherosclerosis.

MemorialCare, with 200+ Southern California locations, includes Long Beach Medical Center, Miller Children's & Women's Hospital Long Beach, Orange Coast Medical Center, Saddleback Medical Center, MemorialCare Medical Group, Greater Newport Physicians, Seaside Health Plan, MemorialCare Research and many ambulatory surgery, medical imaging, urgent care, dialysis and health centers. Visit


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