Coronary Artery Disease: A Tale as Old as Time

February 16, 2023

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Did you know that over the past 20 years heart disease has remained the world’s leading cause of death? Once thought to be a disease of the modern era, the study of medical phenomena in history has led many medical scientists to believe that the disease is not as new as previously believed. As technology has allowed scientists to further study ancient humans, scientists have been able to identify some cases of coronary artery disease spanning back some 4000 years and perhaps even earlier. This American Heart Month we dive into medical science history and the major discoveries that place mankind’s fight against coronary artery disease deep into pre-history.

Frozen in Time

With the development of CT Scan technology has enabled scientists to conduct whole body tomographs on mummies from several geographic locations including the famous mummies of Ancient Egypt. Through these studies conducted in 2013, investigators found evidence of atherosclerosis — the buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances on the artery walls— one of the major symptoms of coronary artery disease. Altogether some 137 mummies were studied and of these 34% were found with similar instances of atherosclerosis which led scientists to conclude that coronary artery disease may have in fact been wide spread amongst these ancient civilizations.

The Renaissance of Medical Dissection

As with the modern era, disease such as coronary artery disease was very elusive without the use of medical dissection and autopsy of the human body which was banned during the time of Roman dominance of much of the known world. It wouldn’t be until the Renaissance era in the 14th century that medical dissection would again be practiced regularly to help shed light on coronary artery disease.

However, prior to the reintroduction of autopsies in medical science, studies of ancient scholars and writings such as Homer and the Ebers Papyrus give clues as to the practices of medicine in the ancient world including early descriptions of what scientists believe are symptoms of coronary artery disease. One such example comes from early writings in Arabic, specifically a poem written by Qais ibn Al-Mulawah which provides early descriptions of angina pectoris including heart palpitations, fainting spells and eventual death. Naturally the love poem owes the author’s sudden death to “love madness” however, some cardiologists agree that the poem’s writer may have been suffering due to symptoms of coronary artery disease and claim these poems to be the first clear and best description of angina in the history of medicine.


It wouldn’t be until the 17th to 19th centuries where medical science would make leaps and bounds on the study of the heart and eventually lead to our understanding of coronary artery disease today. This started with none other than the famous Leonardo Da Vinci who was the first to describe atherosclerosis. The famous inventor and artist was, of course, no physician, but as a Renaissance man he extensively studied many sciences all for the sake of his art and craft. Through Da Vinci, medical scientists were given the first anatomical drawings, notes and descriptions of the structure and function of the heart and circulatory system. At the time, Da Vinci was commissioned by Marcantonio della Torre to provide the illustrations for medical texts on the anatomy of the human body based on dissections. This opened the flood gates for numerous other discoveries that established the basis for coronary artery disease research today.

A Long Journey

For mankind, the struggle against coronary artery disease is not a new one. However, as new technologies become available, our understanding of the causes and symptoms of coronary artery disease deepen. However, you don’t exactly need to know the deep history of coronary artery disease to learn how to prevent history’s most widespread killer. The good news for you and me is that medical science has already identified the most effective way to prevent and control the disease and this is through eating a healthy diet. No matter the long and convoluted story of coronary artery disease, all scientists agree that our diets play the biggest role in the risk for coronary artery disease. So, let’s not continue to dance around the root of cause and address the real culprit that is touching hearts of millions every day — our unhealthy eating habits.

The Island Way

For our island community this pill is perhaps the hardest to chew, for as we all know that in the Marianas Islands we LOVE to eat. And with a cuisine and food culture hailed as one of the best across the pacific and even gaining global attention it’s certainly understandable why we as a culture have adopted such an abusive relationship with food. Let’s be honest, our food is GOOD, however with coronary artery disease being the number one health concern in the islands perhaps we should be asking ourselves if the relationship we have with food may be in need of a total makeover.

Portion Control

For one, the sheer amount of food that is consumed in Guam and the CNMI can be described as way over the top. This of course is the island way; however, the human body is really only supposed to be consuming 2000 calories in a day and if you’ve ever taken a second to really examine your eating habits, you’ll know that the typical island fiesta plate goes above and beyond the recommended caloric intake for any one human being. And if you’re the type to go back to the fiesta table for seconds just know that you’re probably consuming more than double the recommended number of calories.

Eat Your Vegetables

Although not unique to Guam and the CNMI, the number of recommended healthy vegetables and fruits consumed is very much lacking. A quick look at our island tables and especially the fiesta table, many would find that the only vegetable option is quite often the bag of pre-made salad that was definitely thrown in as a last-ditch attempt at being healthy. According to the CDC’s guide on a healthy balanced plate, our meals are really supposed to consist of 50% healthy vegetables and fruits and only a quarter of protein and grains. Surely, the typical island plate is a far cry away from this golden ratio so it’s no surprise the coronary artery disease is prevalent in the islands.

Quench Your Thirst

Lastly, and probably the most underestimated part of healthy diet is good old-fashioned water. The simple fact is that according to the CDC, most Americans just aren’t getting enough it. The recommended amount of water in a day is 3.7 liters or 15.5 cups a day for men and about 11.5 cups or 2.7 liters a day for women. This is super important as water does more than keep you from dying of heat stroke but plays an important role in your digestive system including allowing your body to properly assess cravings and curb your appetite and avoid eating unnecessarily.

Coronary artery disease is bloody history, and although we now know that our modern lifestyle and diets may not necessarily be the only cause for the disease, physicians agree that the only real way to address risk for coronary artery disease by being more mindful of what we eat. Let us all be mindful of our diets, and mindful of what this entire month means for the many thousands of Americans that are living with this disease today. Stay happy and stay healthy, one healthy plate at a time.