Unraveling The Heart Disease Conundrum

Jan 22, 2018

Cardiologist Dr. Chris Rowan is with the Renown Institute for Heart and Vascular Health. He examined the CT scans of ancient mummies to understand the history of cardiovascular disease.
Credit BestMedicine by Renown Health

Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide. To understand heart health, Reno-based cardiologist Dr. Chris Rowan has studied a group of people in South America and also examined the CT scans of ancient mummies. He spoke with our reporter Anh Gray.

Dr. Chris Rowan is with the Renown Institute for Heart and Vascular Health. He says that while diet and exercise can play a role in cardiovascular health, there are other factors that can contribute to heart disease.

“And why that is, we’re still trying to unravel,” Rowan explains. “Certainly, there’s a component of inactivity and lifestyle choices—smoking, poor diet choices—but there’s also further risk factors that we’re trying to unlock.”

As a practitioner, Rowan says there are medical conundrums that can contradict generally accepted guidelines.

“If everything in life is diet, inactivity and cholesterol, I see certain patients that are respectfully obese, sedentary, with diabetes, and they have a lot of symptoms that remind me of heart disease,” Rowan explains, “but when I take them to the cardiac catheterization lab and I look at their arteries, they’re absolutely pristine. And that doesn’t make any sense.”

To gain more understanding of heart disease, Rowan joined a medical research team to conduct CT scans on ancient mummies several years ago.  

“The real question there has been, ‘Is atherosclerosis and heart disease a modern disease or is that something that has been present throughout the past 5,000 years or so?’” Rowan asks. “And really what was the natural history of cardiovascular health before we see our modernization of our civilization?”

Rowan explains that the research shows that atherosclerosis is present in ancient humans throughout the world even without the influence of modern-day risk factors.

“In every civilization we’ve studied, whether they be mummies in Greenland, the South American mummies, Korean mummies, or even Egyptian mummies, is that everyone seems to get some degree of atherosclerosis.”

Rowan’s research work also included studying the heart health of the Tsimane, a native population in the Amazon. The Tsimanes subsist through hunting, foraging and farming. Even though research shows that the Tsimane people have the healthiest hearts in the world, Rowan says there were also unexpected findings.

“And as we embarked on this project, we started finding some very surprising results that we didn’t fully expect,” Rowan explains. “We thought that they wouldn’t have any heart disease at all and in fact, we found the opposite, that they do have some, but they seem to be delayed 20 to 30 years in developing it.”

Rowan will be speaking on a panel exploring genetics and heart health. Click here to learn more.