With all of the talk surrounding heart disease, it could be easily assumed it is a relatively new condition. The truth, however, is that heart disease has been around for thousands of years. Understanding the differences between heart disease of the past and that of the present could help us further preventative measures and treatment techniques. One question to consider is whether or not heart disease has always affected people as it affects us now. While we know that risk factors for heart disease lie both in genetics and in lifestyle, it is important to understand – and therefore better isolate and prevent – specific causes for heart disease.
In order to learn from the past, it is imperative that we ask the right questions. We know that people have suffered from heart disease for thousands of years. What we don’t know is what caused it. In today’s world, heart attacks are largely caused by lifestyle choices rather than genetics. While genetic predisposition is still a factor in determining risk for heart disease, life choices like eating fatty foods and smoking cigarettes are increasingly to blame for heart attacks and other heart conditions. Determining whether heart disease has always been so strongly linked to lifestyle serves as another piece in the puzzle of heart disease.
Determining the cause of death in people long dead can be difficult for many reasons, both because the bodies are too degraded to be of much use in and of themselves, and because people of the past had a much more primitive understanding of anatomy and disease. Oftentimes it is not known what someone died of for the simple fact that they lacked a name for it at the time. In recent years, however, it was discovered that many ancient Egyptians suffered from atherosclerosis. This discovery was supported by the presence of narrowed arteries in the mummified remains of several Egyptians. The cause of the atherosclerosis back then is thought to be much the same as today; namely an excessive amount of fatty foods high in cholesterol. While these findings are not conclusive, they do support the belief that a diet high in fats and sodium significantly increases the chance of developing heart disease.
People of ancient civilizations may have suffered from heart disease, but this does not necessarily mean they knew what it was. Indeed, many were likely unaware that there was cause for concern until the time of their deaths. The first real understanding of the circulatory system, namely how blood moves, is thought to be sometime in the 16th century. The physician to King Charles I is often said to have discovered the movement of blood from the heart to the lungs and back again. This medical discovery marks the beginning of our journey to understand the heart and, by extension, the diseases that affect the heart. Nearly a century after discovering how blood flows through the body, narrowing of the arteries was detected for the first time. These two vital pieces of information set the groundwork for the modern knowledge surrounding the origins, prevention and treatment of heart disease.