What can we learn about cardiovascular disease from the 500-year-old mummified remains of people with a primary diet of fish and sea mammals? A recent Brigham and Women’s Hospital research initiative was focused on finding out.

The research, performed in collaboration with an international team of investigators and anthropologists, involved CT scans of five mummies—four young adults and one child from an Inuit community of 16th-century Greenland—in the Shapiro Cardiovascular Center early last year. The scans revealed telltale signs of plaque in the arteries, with hardened calcium deposits identified in various blood vessels in the mummies’ chests.

“It’s always fascinating to look at humans who lived hundreds of years ago and see if learning about the past could teach us more about the present and future,” says Ron Blankstein, MD, Associate Director of the Brigham’s Cardiovascular Imaging Program, Director of Cardiac Computed Tomography and a preventive cardiology specialist. The Brigham was approached to participate in the research based on the renown of its cardiovascular imaging program.

The investigators’ findings are particularly intriguing due to the subjects’ known fish consumption—commonly touted as a heart-healthy diet. The presence of atherosclerosis in the mummies demonstrates the complex picture of risk factors that contribute to heart disease, notes Dr. Blankstein.

“The question of whether fish is good or bad for you is still open-ended, and it would be unrealistic to think that we could provide a definitive answer by scanning a small number of mummies for plaque,” he says. “Our team found it fascinating that there was evidence of atherosclerosis despite the mummies’ estimated young ages, but this also doesn’t mean cardiovascular disease is inevitable. In fact, the majority of cardiovascular disease events that we see in patients is preventable with appropriate diet, weight control and lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise; at times, medication can also be used to treat various risk factors.”

Read more here on the Brigham’s research, recently highlighted on National Geographic’s “Explorer” series.

Photo header credit: Brigham Bulletin