It is often claimed by various “alternative medicine” gurus that the diseases currently faced by humanity are largely the result of our civilization and artificial causes. Common claims are that everything from genetically modified foods to our use of wireless devices are the reason things like cancer and heart disease exist. (Apparently at one time, people were always in good health and thus never died, either.)
There is some, limited, truth to this, in that some diseases now have the chance to exist more often, simply because less people are killed by something else first. Heart disease, cancer many other diseases become more common with age and therefore would not be as common in a time when many died at an earlier age, as a result of infectious disease and traumatic injury. Other diseases exist in the population today because they can be treated, while in centuries past, they would have resulted in death. Type 1 diabetes, for example, was once a death sentence, but can now be treated.
A few other diseases may be more common today as a result of lifestyle changes. Yet even these diseases were not unheard of in earlier human history. Although a sedentary lifestyle and high calorie intake is well known to be associated with heart disease, a recent study has discovered compelling evidence that atherosclerosis – the buildup of plaque in the heart, existed long before modern lifestyles.
Via the BBC:
A study in The Lancet of 137 mummies up to 4,000 years old found a third had signs of atherosclerosis.
Most people associate the disease, which leads to heart attacks and strokes, with modern lifestyle factors such as smoking and obesity.
But the findings may suggest a more basic human pre-disposition.
Previous studies have uncovered atherosclerosis in a significant number of Egyptian mummies but it had been speculated that they would have come from a higher social class and may have had luxurious diets high in saturated fat.
To try and get a better picture of how prevalent the disease was in ancient populations, the researchers used CT scans to look at mummies from Egypt, Peru, southwest America, and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.
They found that 47 or 34% showed signs of definite or probably atherosclerosis.
Where the mummies’ arterial structure had survived, the researchers were able to attribute a definite case of atherosclerosis by looking for the tell-tale signs of vascular calcification.
In some cases, the arterial structure had not survived but the calcified deposits were still present in sites where arteries would have once been.
What is important about this data is that it comes from distinct populations, some of which were hunter-gatherers, who lived a decidedly non-luxurious lifestyle. The existence of these conditions had previously been known in a few mummies, but that could have easily been attributed to the fact that most of those mummified were from high social classes and would have lived a much different lifestyle than common people. This new research seems to show it is more common across lifestyle types.
Of course, this does not really change the fact that diet and exercise play a role in risk, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is still the best way of prolonging life and health. It does go to show that nothing in biology is perfect and any attempt to completely eradicate the risk through lifestyle changes will be futile. Since evolutionary success only requires reproduction, there would be little evolutionary pressure toward a circulatory system that maintains good health into old age. Atherosclerosis, though influenced by environmental factors, just seems to be an inherent part of human biology.
Similarly, cancer, though sometimes called a “modern disease” caused by chemicals or artificial radiation, was known by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks and has been discovered in ancient mummies. There is no doubt cancer, in all its forms, existed long before modern times and even before humans. It appears to be another example of an inherent imperfection in biology. The mechanisms that govern cell reproduction are simply not perfect and are prone to failure. They work well most of the time, which, as far as evolution is concerned, is good enough.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to say how common diseases were and which causes of death were the most common, historically. It can certainly be known that diseases existed, and how common they may have been has been recorded, at least in circumstances where the symptoms were obvious. Today, when a death occurs in the developed world, there is a death certificate, and the cause is listed. If there is any doubt about the cause of death, such as when death is unexpected or outside a medical facility, an autopsy and investigation of the circumstances is typically preformed.
Yet this is a very modern practice. Prior to the 20th Century, most deaths occurred at home, with many receiving no formal medical care from a doctor in their last days. The exact nature of the disease may not have been properly diagnosed and pathology reports were rare. The causes of death often went unrecorded and medical history data for a person’s lifetime was non-existent.
As recently as the 1920’s, death records continued to contain extremely vague and unverifiable causes of death. Some of these include: “General debility,” “Don’t know,” “dropped dead,” “old age.” Even in cases where a more direct cause is noted, it is very difficult to know how accurate the diagnosis was in times before modern pathology. For example, the term “consumption” most properly means tuberculosis, but appears to have been used to describe almost any respiratory ailment, thus leading to terms like “miner’s consumption.” In other cases, the cause may be recorded as “fever” without giving any indication of what the disease may have been or “child birth,” but with no indication as to whether the death was caused by blood loss, infection, obstructed delivery or other reasons.
As a general rule, the claim that anything is an entirely “modern disease,” should be met with extreme skepticism.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 12th, 2013 at 2:33 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Good Science, History, Quackery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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