400-Year-Old Human Hearts Show History of Atherosclerosis

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Human HeartHeart disease may be the number one global killer, but the condition is hardly new to the modern world. This is the conclusion drawn by archaeologists studying five human hearts that were found preserved in lead jars in the basement of a convent in France. The findings, dating back around 500 years, elaborate more on how humans have dealt with cardiac illness well before the era of high-fructose corn syrup and obesity epidemics.

The heart-shaped urns holding the organs were found buried in the basement of the Convent of the Jacobins in Rennes, France. This was not an unusual practice in medieval Europe as hearts were sometimes buried separate from the bodies. The reason for this is theorized to be to help preserve corpses for transportation. Once the practice had been banned by the Pope in 1299, getting special permission to carry out the separate heart-burial became a sign of affluence and pride for a family. In a bit of romantic flair, people were sometimes buried with the heart of a spouse as well. This was the case for a remarkably preserved female body found at the convent who was still wearing a humble habit and wool dress, and appeared to have been buried with the heart of her husband.

Going by the dates on the urns, the earliest one was buried in 1584 and the latest was in 1655. The hearts had been embalmed with common materials like thyme, lavender, and dehydrating powders, all of which had to be flushed out before the tissue could be rehydrated and examined. One of the hearts was poorly preserved and could not be tested, while another was fairly healthy. The remaining three, however, showed telltale signs of what later medicine would describe as atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis is a disease that occurs when plaques made of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances build up along the inside of arteries. This hardens and narrows the passageway, restricting the amount of blood that can go through. The condition can lead to heart attacks and strokes as the blood supply weakens. Three of the medieval hearts had plaque buildups on the coronary arteries and one of the hearts was even enlarged. This suggests that fatty diets have not been a recent part of human history and that medieval nobles likely indulged in lifestyles that ended up harming their hearts.

The discovery of humanity’s eternal battle with coronary disease is not limited to Europe either. Atherosclerosis has also been found in Egyptian mummies, indicating that rulers and nobles across continents also fell prey to heart disease. It is a challenge that has grown and changed along with society and should be taken as a sign of what can be overcome, especially now that people know more about how to prevent or delay its emergence.

Sources for Today’s Article:
Christensen, J., “500-year-old Hearts Give Early Glimpse of Heart Disease,” CNN web site, December 9, 2015; http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/09/health/ancient-hearts-convent-disease/index.html.
Griffiths, S., “Embalmed HEARTS Found in Beautiful 16th Century Urns Reveal Their Owners Suffered from Coronary Diseases,” Daily Mail Online web site, December 3, 2015; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3343408/Modern-science-detects-disease-400-year-old-embalmed-hearts.html.