What if we could unlock the cause of heart disease by looking into the past? Dr. Chris Rowan, cardiologist with Renown Institute for Heart & Vascular Health, is studying heart disease in ancient cultures to gain insight into treating the disease in modern times.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States. More than 600,000 Americans die of heart disease every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 735,000 people in the U.S. suffer a heart attack each year. Medical experts are hard at work studying the disease — sometimes through an unconventional lens.
Renown Cardiologist Chris Rowan, M.D., and a team of researchers are looking back — way back — by studying the bodies of our ancient ancestors to help heart patients today.
Why is the study of ancient mummies important to contemporary life?
There are number of questions that come up regarding contemporary health issues both in the United States and throughout the Western world. One question is whether cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis are modern phenomenons, or whether they have been present throughout human history. By studying ancient mummies from across the world, we have been able to answer this question. Every single culture we’ve looked at — from South America to Greenland to Alaska — has suffered from various forms of atherosclerotic vascular disease and cardiovascular disease.
How does current technology aid in the study of mummies?
With the advent of the modern CT scanner, we’ve been able to look inside the wrappings of a mummy and unlock the hidden secrets of their health. We’ve been able to this noninvasively, meaning without disrupting any of the artifacts they have been preserved in. We have also been able to develop three-dimensional models of the mummies without destroying them. We also use modern DNA techniques to extract DNA from ancient mummies.
What modern day diseases or health concerns are being found in mummies?
We have been able to identify diseases such as kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, and various forms of infectious disease and cancers.
You attended the 9th World Congress on Mummy Studies in Lima, Peru late last year. Can you tell us about that?
The world mummy congress convenes every three years in various locations throughout the world. It is a chance for researchers from around the world to get together and exchange ideas and the latest research from what they have discovered. The meeting includes anthropologists, preservationists and museum directors, as well as the Horus Research Team, which I am part of. The Horus team consists of a cardiologist, radiologist, infectious disease specialist, pollution researchers and an anthropologist, just to name a few.
Upcoming trips for the Horus Research Team include a trip to Chile at the invitation of the National Museum and the Chilean National Science Foundation to image 50 of their mummies from the Northern Atacama Desert. This is a unique opportunity, as 25 of the mummies are from the lowlands by the sea and 25 are from the highlands. This will allow us to examine whether or not altitude and climate had an impact on the overall health of the two populations.
We will also be in Turin, Italy, in March examining 150 Egyptian mummies. Once this is finished, we will be examining 150-200 animal mummies, which will make the largest collection of CT scanned animals from the Egyptian period.