The study's biggest surprise occurred with findings of extensive artery deposits among the Aleutian mummies -- people who led very traditional, highly physical lives hunting for foods such as sea urchins and fish. One Aleutian woman, aged about 50, had "extremely extensive [arterial] calcification," Thompson said, and might have been a candidate for bypass surgery if she had lived today.
All of this brings up complex questions for modern humans.
"When you look at these mummies, much of what we think we know [about heart disease] is wrong, and if you open your eyes we can learn a lot," co-researcher Dr. Samuel Wann of Columbia St. Mary's Healthcare, in Milwaukee, told reporters.
He stressed that the investigators can't say for sure that the calcified arteries they discovered meant that the people had suffered heart attacks or strokes. However, one Egyptian medical papyrus text from 1550 B.C. does describe a patient having a heart attack, he said, "and there are paintings on some tombs in Egypt that show people falling over clutching their chest, as if they are having a heart attack."
The research team concluded that heart disease is potentially as old as mankind itself, and is probably an inevitable part of aging, not just a product of sedentary lives and fatty foods.
But that doesn't give modern people a pass to be slothful, and to eat whatever they want.
"On the one hand [the study shows that] we may have less control of this disease than some people would like to think we do," Wann said. "But that's all the more reason to control the risk factors that we think we can control."
One cardiologist not connected to the research agreed with that advice.
The study "supports the notion that humans may be genetically predisposed to atherosclerosis or heart disease," said Dr. Kevin Marzo, chief of cardiology at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y. "We have no way to change our genet
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