Can We Learn From Primate Heart Studies?

Exploring Intensity

Can We Learn From Primate Heart Studies?

A new study looking at both primates and men may hold some very novel, and important, insights about how our hearts work.

Humans share traits and genetic material with gorillas. Harvard researchers wanted to understand how our hearts differ from primates as humans are built for endurance.

For years these researchers scanned the hearts of chimps and took their blood pressure at nature preserves and did heart scans on gorillas at zoos. They also did the same for a group of men; Harvard football players, Harvard runners, workers in Mexico and some younger men who didn’t exercise at all. And what they found was a big deal, according to this article:

The hearts of the chimps and gorillas proved to be well adapted for short, sharp bursts of activity, with a rounded shape and thick walls inside their chambers that could withstand and respond to sudden, brief spikes in blood flow but resulted in relatively high baseline blood pressures in the chimps, compared to people (although primates, unlike us, do not seem to experience heart problems from such as hypertension).

The human hearts, on the other hand, were more elongated and supple, with thinner chamber walls that could twist and pump greater volumes of blood at lower pressures than in the primate hearts, a necessity during sustained aerobic activities, like walking or jogging.

But it got even weirder. Again from the article:

The collegiate runners and subsistence farmers, whatever their age, harbored hearts that were endurance-ready, with the thinnest, springiest chamber walls and the lowest blood pressures among the human groups.

The hearts of the football players, meanwhile, whose regular exercise consisted mostly of weight training, and those of the sedentary young Bostonians, whose regular exercise consisted of not doing any, showed relatively thicker chamber walls and greater heart stiffness.

Their hearts had developed a subtly “chimpanzee-like phenotype,” in the words of the scientists.

Yes, that’s right. If you call a football player a “gorilla” you might blame the NY Times.

But in all seriousness, as they say at the end, the most important finding is that the sedentary men also had heart alterations, and those could very well contribute to heart disease later in life.

So, if you’re looking to stay healthy, and get in touch with your ancestors, then start climbing those trees in the backyard.

-Shane M.

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