What secrets lie in the hearts of our ancestors? Signs of cardiovascular disease, for one, as a team of cardiovascular-imaging experts from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) recently helped discover.
Through a collaboration with an international team of researchers and anthropologists, BWH faculty and staff performed CT scans on five mummies from 16th-century Greenland in the Shapiro Cardiovascular Center early last year. The team was looking for evidence of plaque in the arteries — also known as atherosclerosis — to see if the leading cause of death in the U.S. today was also prevalent centuries ago.
Sure enough, high-resolution scans of the mummified remains — belonging to four young adults and one child from an Inuit community — revealed the telltale hardened calcium deposits in various blood vessels in the chest.
“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,” said Ron Blankstein, associate director of the Brigham’s Cardiovascular Imaging Program, director of cardiac computed tomography, and a preventive cardiology specialist.
Blankstein was among the experts who scanned the mummies and interpreted the images in 2018, an event featured on National Geographic’s “Explorer” series. The effort was part of a broader project, led by a group of external researchers, to scan mummies from hunter-gatherer and preindustrial civilizations around the world to search for signs of heart disease.