We think of heart disease as a modern scourge, brought on by our sedentary lifestyles and our affinity for fast food.
But a few years ago, a team of researchers discovered something puzzling — CT scans of Egyptian mummies showed signs of hardened, narrow arteries. Further scans of mummies from other ancient civilizations turned up the same thing.
How could it be that these preindustrial people without donuts or desk jobs suffered from atherosclerosis, a condition we know to be associated with smoking, unhealthy diet and lack of exercise? And what does that tell us about heart disease today?
We may be getting closer to understanding. In a study published this week in Global Heart, researchers conclude that factors like inhaling smoke from open fire pits, and inflammation triggered by dirty living conditions may be to blame.
While inflammation isn't considered one of the main risk factors for heart disease today, studies have found that it's associated with atherosclerosis. And ongoing clinical trials are testing whether reducing inflammation might help reduce risk of heart disease.
The researchers behind this report pored over autopsies of mummies from the various communities they've studied — including ancient Peruvians and Native Americans in the U.S. Southwest, as well as in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Many of the mummified people, they discovered, had endured a host of infections known to exacerbate inflammation — including malaria and tapeworms.
Since female mummies showed more evidence of atherosclerosis than male mummies, the scientists also theorize that exposure to smoke from fire pits played a role. "In each of the cultures we studied, the women were cooking," says Dr. Greg Thomas, a cardiologist who led the study. These ancient peoples also used fires to keep warm and ward off insects, he says, "So they were exposed to a lot of smoke." In many ways, inhaling billowing smoke from a fire pit can be as harmful to the heart as smoking cigarettes or breathing highly polluted air, Thomas notes.
"The data presented here are quite provocative," says Dr. Nathan Wong, a cardiologist and professor at the University of California, Irvine. "It gives us more of an appreciation for factors we don't think about as much these days."
The findings suggest that atherosclerosis may be baked into our genes more than we thought, Thomas says.
"It's incredible," he says, that people from both ancient and modern times, with a range of different diets and lifestyles all suffered from the same condition.
Of course, in general, the atherosclerosis found in the mummies wasn't too severe. "It was really pre-clinical," Thomas notes. Modern humans who want to stave off heart disease should continue to exercise and watch what they eat, he says, but "When I see a patient now who has a heart incident, I assure them that this is a problem that's been with us since before writing — so they shouldn't blame themselves too much."
There's an 85-year-old building on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles that has been a venue for the Dalai Lama, the L.A. Philharmonic and even scenes for Entourage and The West Wing. But extracurricular activities aside, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple is a house of worship. Recently refurbished, and given a preservation award by the Los Angeles Conservancy, the temple has a special place in the history of Hollywood.
Rabbi Steve Leder is much too discreet to share the names of his movie-biz congregants, but he will say that some big-time Hollywood studio heads, producers, directors, writers and agents have attended the temple over the years. Some of the congregants who helped build Wilshire Boulevard Temple — which was dedicated in 1929 — were pillars of the movie industry. Their descendants worship here today.
The restored Moorish-style sanctuary — complete with pillars and stained glass — is massive and magnificent.
"It would be one thing if this was in Paris or Rome or Florence or even Manhattan," Leder says. "But this is Los Angeles. There's nothing like this in Los Angeles."
Modeled after Rome's Pantheon, the Wilshire temple was built by movie moguls — Louis B. Mayer of MGM, Irving Thalberg, MGM's production head, Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal, and the Warner Brothers. They deployed craftsmen from their studios to adorn the temple.
"They brought in their guys" Leder says. And their "guys" put Hollywood touches on what the rabbi calls this Jewish cathedral.
Imposing marble columns aren't marble at all — they're hollow.
"They're plaster painted and waxed to look like marble," Leder explains. "So there's a lot of Hollywood trickery, and it brought together the best of both worlds. It melded the techniques of great religious architecture and the techniques of Hollywood set design."
Unlike most sanctuaries, Wilshire Boulevard Temple has no center aisle. Why?
"Because these guys built movie theaters," Leder says. "There's never a center aisle in a movie theater either — it's where the best seats are. Why would you put an aisle where the best seats are?"
With the money they made from The Jazz Singer — the first talking picture — the Warner Brothers paid for a gleaming mural of Bible scenes, painted by studio artist Hugo Ballin. The synagogue is lavish, with a gilded coffered ceiling, filigreed brass doors and a soaring dome.
"These were Hollywood Jews," Leder says. "They were theatrical and they were visual. And so they decided, well, that's all well and good that Jews have been shy and timid about this — we are not."
They moved their temple — B'nai Brith originally founded in 1862 — and it became Wilshire Boulevard Temple. These Jews originally came from Germany and Eastern Europe. They were raised in Orthodox Jewish households. And in building this temple they were saying: We are assimilated Americans. Their larger-than-life rabbi, Edgar Magnin — who served for almost 70 years — was the driving force of the building, and the Jewish community.
"I sort of describe him as the John Wayne of rabbis," says Neal Gabler, author of the 1989 book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.
"He felt it was his job to be an ambassador from the Jewish community to the gentile community. Some people called him 'Cardinal Magnin.'"
Magnin was also known as "Rabbi to the stars." Over the decades those stars included the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, the Three Stooges and Henry Winkler — "The Fonz." Magnin was himself a star in Hollywood. He appeared at all the important events and took voice lessons to grab the attention of his congregation. He was a showman, creating an aesthetic theater — a movie palace for religion, but a secularized religion.
"In Hollywood, for many, many, many, many years, the studios were open and operating on Saturday," Gabler says. "Even though virtually every studio was run by a Jew, that didn't stop them. There was no day of rest."
Observant or not, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple moguls were culturally Jewish, and sensitive to world events. By the early 1940s, while Nazism enveloped Europe, Harry Warner felt Hollywood should sound the alarm in films.
"He was the only mogul that wanted to depict what was happening in Germany," says Martin Kaplan, who ran a conference on propaganda in World War II Hollywood, at the University of Southern California's Norman Lear center.
"But the other studios were afraid of losing the German market revenues which were enormous, and so they didn't want to risk it. And the Roosevelt administration wasn't happy to see Hollywood being anti-Nazi because they were afraid that it would get the American public to press them to enter World War II."
All that ended when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Then the Wilshire Boulevard Temple moguls — and the film industry — filled their silver screens with American patriotism. And they prayed for peace in their glorious house of God. It was a house that Hollywood built — an announcement of arrival and ambition, says Rabbi Steve Leder:
"This was the Los Angeles Jewish community's statement to itself — and to the majoritarian culture that surrounded it — that: We are here, and we are prepared to be a great cultural and religious and civic force in our community."
Now Wilshire Boulevard Temple is building a family resource center — with free dental and vision care — for their primarily Korean- and Spanish-speaking neighbors. A celebratory ground-breaking party drew temple members from all over L.A. They stood in the bright southern California sun, sipping that beloved old Jewish-American drink: sangria.