Thursday, May 19, 2011

Extinct because ex-stent?

In the latest surprise bulletins is a report of an Egyptian mummy who is found, after sexy hi-tech body scanning, to have had heart and other arterial blockage disease.  If she were alive, say the investigators, she'd have needed bypass surgery (or just a few stents?).  This princess died about 3,500 years ago.

Now whether or not you think it is ethical to do such studies of the deceased, and despite the fact that this prying is certainly interesting, the story is reported in part because "The researchers say her case shows heart disease pre-dates a modern lifestyle".  The idea that this proves that heart disease predates modern culture is another misleading bit of self-promotion and media hype.  Why?

References to and treatment of heart disease are plentiful in the existing literature of the past.  Other animals are known to get heart disease.  And it is manifestly shown that avoiding the worst of 'modern lifestyle' clearly leads to less heart disease, but not in everyone.  So the 'finding' is really nothing more than what was already well-known.  The researchers go on:
Her diet was significantly healthier than ours. She would have eaten fruit and vegetables - and fish were plentiful in the Nile at that time.  The food would have been organic - and there were no trans-fats or tobacco available then. Yet, she had these blockages. This suggests to us that there's a missing risk factor for heart disease - something that causes it that we don't yet know enough about.
The researchers pander to every here-and-now fad or idea ('organic' food).  Nothing wrong with advocating a better diet, of course.  Despite their taste, brussels sprouts are life-savers!  But we already know of various genetic factors that can lead, for example, to hypercholesterolemia basically even without lifestyle provocation.  Of course, they'll probably now do her genome sequence, if DNA survived her embalming, and we'll spend a good deal of money to get and have a good many news stories to report the findings.  Perhaps they'll find one of the known LDL receptor mutations but those are largely in Europeans so if they find one they'll then be able to proclaim that she was an immigrant or proved there were royal liaisons with European (i.e., barbarian) royalty!

Sadly, we were not around to be invited to any Pharaohnic dinner parties, so we don't know what kind of food the royals of the time ate.  Nor whether the princess happened to have both a sweet tooth and indulgent nannies.  Or whether she was just plain genetically unlucky.

Again, we know we're spoil-sports but we think science should be about science rather than spin, even it makes knowledge a bit more boring, and science reporting should be done by people who know their field and report properly.  The reason for our stodgy views is that spinning is how we make ourselves teeter off on expensive research as well as pop-culture/how-to tangents.


Anonymous said...

Gasp, whole natural foods can be bad for you too!

I'm not going to blame genes until there is evidence. Right now the evidence is that wealthy Ancient Egyptians consumed things like beer and cake, which could definitely contribute to her condition.

Ken Weiss said...

Unless the Phaeronic view was opposite of Maria Antoinette's: "Let US eat cake!"

It all cloggles the mind.