On a foggy day in August 1936, an anthropologist and his crew set sail for Kagamil Island, a small volcanic speck of hot springs and cliffs in the Bering Sea. A person identified as “Brown Bear” had told them of a cave full of mummies and other human remains. Shortly after landing, they found the opening in the rocks near a steam jet.
According to the notes of the anthropologist, Ales Hrdlicka, the cave contained “wonderful riches”:
“Space within cave is limited, in most of it one can not stand up, in none of it can use shovels; must work with hands like badgers. ... As the salt deposit is penetrated into, there appears mummy after mummy, in different states of preservation — male, female and especially children ... a huge whale shoulder blade ... two entire kayaks.”
Nearly 80 years later, the mummies from Kagamil and elsewhere have excited the interest of scientists who say what they have learned from the remains challenges a central tenet of conventional thinking about what we ought to eat.
Heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S., is often blamed on modern diets and a sedentary lifestyle. According to this thinking, if only people ate the “right” foods and exercised more, they could live longer. This view is encapsulated in the current version of the government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are under review and being reissued soon. They have long recommended dietary habits deemed good for your heart — lower intakes of saturated fat and salt, more emphasis on lean meat and seafood.
“Poor diet and physical inactivity are associated with major causes of morbidity and mortality in the United States,” according to those guidelines.
But examinations of the bodies of the Unangans from Kagamil Island and other pre-modern people indicate that, in fact, the modern scourge of heart disease is not at all new, and that people who exercised more than we do as a matter of necessity, and whose diet was free from modern temptations, also suffered striking levels of heart disease, according to the researchers.
In recent years, X-ray based scans of mummies from around the world - including the hunter gatherers of Kagamil as well as those from ancient Egypt, Peru and the American Southwest — found signs of heart disease or atherosclerosis, the plaque lining the arteries near the heart.
Health news in pictures
Health news in pictures
1/27 Exercise classes offering 45 minute naps launch
David Lloyd Gyms have launched a new health and fitness class which is essentially a bunch of people taking a nap for 45 minutes. The fitness group was spurred to launch the ‘napercise’ class after research revealed 86 per cent of parents said they were fatigued. The class is therefore predominantly aimed at parents but you actually do not have to have children to take part
2/27 'Fundamental right to health' to be axed after Brexit, lawyers warn
Tobacco and alcohol companies could win more easily in court cases such as the recent battle over plain cigarette packaging if the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is abandoned, a barrister and public health professor have said.
3/27 'Thousands dying' due to fear over non-existent statin side-effects
A major new study into the side effects of the cholesterol-lowering medicine suggests common symptoms such as muscle pain and weakness are not caused by the drugs themselves
4/27 Babies born to fathers aged under 25 have higher risk of autism
New research has found that babies born to fathers under the age of 25 or over 51 are at higher risk of developing autism and other social disorders. The study, conducted by the Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment at Mount Sinai, found that these children are actually more advanced than their peers as infants, but then fall behind by the time they hit their teenage years.
5/27 Cycling to work ‘could halve risk of cancer and heart disease’
Commuters who swap their car or bus pass for a bike could cut their risk of developing heart disease and cancer by almost half, new research suggests – but campaigners have warned there is still an “urgent need” to improve road conditions for cyclists. Cycling to work is linked to a lower risk of developing cancer by 45 per cent and cardiovascular disease by 46 per cent, according to a study of a quarter of a million people. Walking to work also brought health benefits, the University of Glasgow researchers found, but not to the same degree as cycling.
6/27 Ketamine helps patients with severe depression ‘when nothing else works’ doctors say
Ketamine helps patients with severe depression ‘when nothing else works’ doctors say
7/27 Playing Tetris in hospital after a traumatic incident could prevent PTSD
Scientists conducted the research on 71 car crash victims as they were waiting for treatment at one hospital’s accident and emergency department. They asked half of the patients to briefly recall the incident and then play the classic computer game, the others were given a written activity to complete. The researchers, from Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the University of Oxford, found that the patients who had played Tetris reported fewer intrusive memories, commonly known as flashbacks, in the week that followed
8/27 Measles outbreak spreads across Europe as parents shun vaccinations, WHO warns
Major measles outbreaks are spreading across Europe despite the availability of a safe, effective vaccine, the World Health Organisation has warned. Anti-vaccine movements are believed to have contributed to low rates of immunisation against the highly contagious disease in countries such as Italy and Romania, which have both seen a recent spike in infections. Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, said it was “of particular concern that measles cases are climbing in Europe” when they had been dropping for years
9/27 Vaping backed as healthier nicotine alternative to cigarettes after latest study
Vaping has been given an emphatic thumbs up by health experts after the first long-term study of its effects in ex-smokers. After six months, people who switched from real to e-cigarettes had far fewer toxins and cancer-causing substances in their bodies than continual smokers, scientists found
10/27 Common method of cooking rice can leave traces of arsenic in food, scientists warn
Millions of people are putting themselves at risk by cooking their rice incorrectly, scientists have warned. Recent experiments show a common method of cooking rice — simply boiling it in a pan until the water has steamed out — can expose those who eat it to traces of the poison arsenic, which contaminates rice while it is growing as a result of industrial toxins and pesticides
11/27 Contraceptive gel that creates ‘reversible vasectomy’ shown to be effective in monkeys
An injectable contraceptive gel that acts as a ‘reversible vasectomy’ is a step closer to being offered to men following successful trials on monkeys. Vasalgel is injected into the vas deferens, the small duct between the testicles and the urethra. It has so far been found to prevent 100 per cent of conceptions
12/27 Shift work and heavy lifting may reduce women’s fertility, study finds
Women who work at night or do irregular shifts may experience a decline in fertility, a new study has found. Shift and night workers had fewer eggs capable of developing into healthy embryos than those who work regular daytime hours, according to researchers at Harvard University
13/27 Breakfast cereals targeted at children contain 'steadily high' sugar levels since 1992 despite producer claims
A major pressure group has issued a fresh warning about perilously high amounts of sugar in breakfast cereals, specifically those designed for children, and has said that levels have barely been cut at all in the last two and a half decades
14/27 Fight against pancreatic cancer takes ‘monumental leap forward’
Scientists have made a “monumental leap forward” in the treatment of pancreatic cancer after discovering using two drugs together dramatically improved patients’ chances of living more than five years after diagnosis.
15/27 Japanese government tells people to stop overworking
The Japanese government has announced measures to limit the amount of overtime employees can do – in an attempt to stop people literally working themselves to death. A fifth of Japan’s workforce are at risk of death by overwork, known as karoshi, as they work more than 80 hours of overtime each month, according to a government survey.
16/27 Over-cooked potatoes and burnt toast ‘could cause cancer’
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has issued a public warning over the risks of acrylamide - a chemical compound that forms in some foods when they are cooked at high temperatures (above 120C).
17/27 Cervical cancer screening attendance hits 19 year low
Cervical screening tests are a vital method of preventing cancer through the detection and treatment of abnormalities in the cervix, but new research shows that the number of women using this service has dropped to a 19 year low.
18/27 High blood pressure may protect over 80s from dementia
The ConversationIt is well known that high blood pressure is a risk factor for dementia, so the results of a new study from the University of California, Irvine, are quite surprising. The researchers found that people who developed high blood pressure between the ages of 80-89 are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia) over the next three years than people of the same age with normal blood pressure.
19/27 Most child antidepressants are ineffective and can lead to suicidal thoughts
The majority of antidepressants are ineffective and may be unsafe, for children and teenager with major depression, experts have warned. In what is the most comprehensive comparison of 14 commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs to date, researchers found that only one brand was more effective at relieving symptoms of depression than a placebo. Another popular drug, venlafaxine, was shown increase the risk users engaging in suicidal thoughts and attempts at suicide
20/27 'Universal cancer vaccine’ breakthrough claimed by experts
Scientists have taken a “very positive step” towards creating a universal vaccine against cancer that makes the body’s immune system attack tumours as if they were a virus, experts have said. Writing in Nature, an international team of researchers described how they had taken pieces of cancer’s genetic RNA code, put them into tiny nanoparticles of fat and then injected the mixture into the bloodstreams of three patients in the advanced stages of the disease. The patients' immune systems responded by producing "killer" T-cells designed to attack cancer. The vaccine was also found to be effective in fighting “aggressively growing” tumours in mice, according to researchers, who were led by Professor Ugur Sahin from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany
21/27 Green tea could be used to treat brain issues caused by Down’s Syndrome
A compound found in green tea could improve the cognitive abilities of those with Down’s syndrome, a team of scientists has discovered. Researchers found epigallocatechin gallate – which is especially present in green tea but can also be found in white and black teas – combined with cognitive stimulation, improved visual memory and led to more adaptive behaviour. Dr Rafael de la Torre, who led the year-long clinical trial along with Dr Mara Dierrssen, said: “The results suggest that individuals who received treatment with the green tea compound, together with the cognitive stimulation protocol, had better scores in their cognitive capacities”
22/27 Taking antidepressants in pregnancy ‘could double the risk of autism in toddlers’
Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could almost double the risk of a child being diagnosed with autism in the first years of life, a major study of nearly 150,000 pregnancies has suggested. Researchers have found a link between women in the later stages of pregnancy who were prescribed one of the most common types of antidepressant drugs, and autism diagnosed in children under seven years of age
23/27 Warning over Calpol
Parents have been warned that giving children paracetamol-based medicines such as Calpol and Disprol too often could lead to serious health issues later in life. Leading paediatrician and professor of general paediatrics at University College London, Alastair Sutcliffe, said parents were overusing paracetamol to treat mild fevers. As a result, the risk of developing asthma, as well as kidney, heart and liver damage is heightened
24/27 Connections between brain cells destroyed in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease
Scientists have pinpointed how connections in the brain are destroyed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, in a study which it is hoped will help in the development of treatments for the debilitating condition. At the early stages of the development of Alzheimer’s disease the synapses – which connect the neurons in the brain – are destroyed, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia. The synapses are vital for brain function, particularly learning and forming memories
25/27 A prosthetic hand that lets people actually feel through
The technology lets paralysed people feel actual sensations when touching objects — including light taps on the mechanical finger — and could be a huge breakthrough for prosthetics, according to its makers. The tool was used to let a 28-year-old man who has been paralysed for more than a decade. While prosthetics have previously been able to be controlled directly from the brain, it is the first time that signals have been successfully sent the other way
26/27 Aspirin could help boost therapies that fight cancer
The latest therapies that fight cancer could work better when combined with aspirin, research has suggested. Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London say the anti-inflammatory pain killer suppresses a cancer molecule that allows tumours to evade the body’s immune defences. Laboratory tests have shown that skin, breast and bowel cancer cells often generate large amounts of this molecule, called prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). But Aspirin is one of a family of drugs that sends messages to the brain to block production of PGE2 and this means cancer cells can be attacked by the body’s natural defences
27/27 Potatoes reduce risk of stomach cancer
Scientists have found people who eat large amounts of white vegetables were a third less likely to contract stomach cancer. The study, undertaken by Chinese scientists at Zhejiang University, found eating cauliflower, potatoes and onions reduces the chance of contracting stomach cancer but that beer, spirits, salt and preserved foods increased a person’s risk of the cancer
Even the reconstructed man shown above, who lived 5,000 years ago, showed signs of atherosclerosis. His mummified remains were discovered in the Italian Alps in September 1991.
For years, scientists have argued over the extent to which modern diets ought to be blamed for the high rates of heart disease. As an American Heart Association publication summarizes: "There can be little doubt that the Western diet is closely tied to the development of atherosclerosis."
This belief is widely shared, but it has led to a fierce debate over how exactly people ought to reform their diet. Many leading health groups, including the American Heart Association, have concluded that a person's heart disease risk depends on "both the quantity and quality of fat in an individual's diet," and they urge people to reduce the amount of animal products — especially beef, pork and lamb — that they consume.
That approach has met strong criticism in recent years by critics who argue instead that a diet rich in proteins and lower in carbohydrates — the so-called "cave man" approach — makes it easier to maintain a stable weight and metabolism.
The new research may undercut both positions. By turning up evidence of heart disease in populations with widely varying diets, the mummy research suggests that maybe some other unrecognized cause is at work besides what we choose to eat.
“Although commonly assumed to be a modern disease, the presence of atherosclerosis in pre-modern human beings raises the possibility of a more basic predisposition to the disease,” according to the researchers, who include specialists in cardiology, X-rays, anthropology and other fields.
As the research has found its way over the years into some of the world’s most esteemed medical journals, including the Lancet, which in 2013 published an article about four groups of mummies, critics of the work have charged that the number of mummies that have been examined is relatively small — only a couple hundred or so — and insufficient to support broad conclusions. Moreover, the bodies have been dead a long time, and maybe some other chemical changes create the appearance of arterial plaque.
But the very basic reaction to the mummy research has been this: Given all the research linking heart disease and diet, the results were too unlikely to believe.
“In my opinion the ancient populations did intense physical activity and followed a diet rich in vegetable, free from saturated fats, and therefore [had a] low risk of developing atherosclerosis,” Gino Fornaciari a paleopathologist at the University of Pisa, wrote in an email.
In the past, he said, only “elite individuals” such as kings would have suffered from atherosclerosis because they could have afforded foods that match those of the modern diet.
He said inaccuracies in reading the scans of tissues that were long dead, and dessicated, might have led to inaccuracies in conclusions. The scans, known as CT scans for computerized tomography, are based on computerized analysis of multiple X-ray images. The plaque that causes heart disease consists in part of calcium; those calcified remnants remain in the mummies and show up in the scans.
“On the basis of my long experience,” Fornaciari said, many false findings are possible.
But the mummy researchers, including cardiologists who look at such scans in living humans, note that the appearance of the atherosclerosis in the CT scans in the mummies is “virtually identical” to the appearance of atherosclerosis in their patients.
This similarity, they said, makes it unlikely that some change in the ancient bodies has created an illusion of atherosclerosis.
Indeed, tther researchers find the evidence of ancient heart disease around the world compelling.
“These results confirm that atherosclerosis was present in ancient civilisations with wide cultural differences,” Anthony M. Heagerty, a cardiologist at the University of Manchester, wrote in response to the Lancet article, citing other research along similar lines.
Moreover, the researchers can point to other evidence indicating that heart disease is an ancient affliction.
One text from Egypt dating as far back as 1550 BCE said: “If thou examinst a man for illness in his cardia, and he has pains in his arms, in his breast and on one side of his cardia … it is death threatening him.”
What is more difficult to know from the mummies is how far advanced the heart disease might have been in the individuals, or how much they may have felt the symptoms.
But the scientists said that some of the signs of heart disease appear to have been severe enough that they very likely caused people to suffer. For example, scientists point specifically to one of the mummies from Kagamil Island, a 40-ish woman who lived about 1900.
“What’s remarkable about her is that she would have had a marine diet, and consumed a lot of fish oil,” said one of the researchers, Gregory Thomas, medical director of the Heart Institute at Long Beach Memorial Hospital in Long Beach, Calif. “She ate plenty of sea lions and whale and fish. Inland there would have been berries and leaves."
Yet the scientists found evidence of severe atherosclerosis in two of the three arteries that supply blood to the heart.
For the cardiologists like Thomas among the researchers, the ramifications of the work are not merely academic. They have changed the way they think about the conventional diet advice typically dispensed to heart patients.
Randall Thompson, a cardiologist at St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City and a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, said the research has changed the way he views what we can do to prevent heart disease.
”I’m a clinical cardiologist and I want people to eat a healthy diet, but this puts all that in perspective. ... At least part of this disease is not explained by traditional risk factors. These ancient people didn’t have preservatives, everything was organic, they didn’t smoke and they got plenty of exercise. But ... the amount of atherosclerosis in ancient times isn’t much different from what you see in modern times. If you account for age, it looks like we’re in the same ballpark.”
Thomas said something similar.
“When I became a cardiologist 30 years ago, I was pretty dogmatic about the low-fat, low-cholesterol diet to prevent heart disease. [But] we’ve been unable to find a culture without atherosclerosis and I’m not really sure what to eat, personally, to delay atherosclerosis, or what to recommend to patients. Of late, I tell people to stay lean.”
Staying lean, he says, keeps cholesterol levels in the bloodstream lower, and helps stave off heart disease.
“We have this wistful hope that if we go back to nature that we would markedly delay atherosclerosis," Thomas said. "But these people ate a natural diet, and they still had heart disease. I no longer think that way.”
© Washington PostReuse content