Monday, June 29, 2015

Ischemic heart disease among Greenland Inuit: Data from 1962 to 1964

The traditional Inuit diet is very high in animal protein and fat. It also includes plant matter. Typically it is made up primarily of the following: fish, walrus, seal, whale, berries, and fireweed (of which syrups and jellies can be made).

Kjærgaard and colleagues (see under References, at the end of this post) examined data from an Inuit population in Greenland from 1962 to 1964, prior to the heavy westernization of their diet that is seen today. They investigated 96.9% of the whole population in three areas, including Ammassalik in East Greenland (n = 1,851).

Of those, only 181 adults, or 9.7 percent, had anything that looked like an abnormality that could suggest ischemia. This included ventricular hypertrophy (an enlargement of the heart chambers), leading to an overestimation because benign ventricular hypertrophy is induced by continuous physical exertion. These 181 adults were then selected for further screening.

Benign ventricular hypertrophy is also known as athlete's heart, because it is common among athletes. A prevalence of ventricular hypertrophy at a relatively young age, and declining with age, would suggest benign hypertrophy. The opposite would suggest pathological hypertrophy, which is normally induced by chronic hypertension.

As you can see from the figure below, from Kjærgaard et al. (2009), the pattern observed among the Inuit was of benign hypertrophy, suggestive of strong physical exertion at a young age.

A pattern of benign hypertrophy induced by robust physical activity is also consistent with reports by Stefansson (1958) about the life of the Eskimos in Northern Alaska. It is reasonable to assume that these Eskimos had a diet and lifestyle similar to the Greenland Inuit.

Back to Kjærgaard et al.’s (2009) study. The 181 adults selected for further screening then had a 12-lead ECG performed (this is a widely used test to check for heart abnormalities). The results suggested that only two men, aged 62 and 63 years, had ischemic heart disease. All in all, this suggests a prevalence of ischemic heart disease of 0.11 percent, which is very low.

(The authors of the article estimated the prevalence of ischemic heart disease at 1.1 percent, because they used the n = 181, as opposed to the original n = 1,851, in their calculation. The latter is the correct baseline sample size, in my opinion. Still, the authors present the 1.1 percent number as quite low as well, which it is.)

The prevalence of ischemic heart disease in the US of approximately 6.8 percent. That is, the prevalence in the US is 63 times higher than among the Inuit studied (using the 0.11 percent as the basis for comparison). And, it should be noted that there are many countries with a higher prevalence of ischemic heart disease than modern US.

It is possible that the low prevalence of ischemic heart disease among the Inuit was partly due to a higher mortality of those with the disease than in modern US, where medical intervention can prolong one's life in the presence of almost any disease. That is, perhaps many of those Inuit with ischemia would die quickly, and thus would not be captured by a study like this.

It is doubtful, however, that this would explain a difference as large as the one observed. Moreover, if many Inuit were dying due to ischemia, there would probably be plenty of evidence suggesting that. (I would imagine that the mysterious deaths associated with chest pain, and other related symptoms, would be a constant topic of conversation.) Reports from early explorers, however, suggest the opposite (e.g., Stefansson, 1958), and are consistent with the study described here.

In conclusion, this study suggests that the diet and lifestyle of the Greenland Inuit prior to the 1960’s (i.e., not their traditional diet and lifestyle, but approaching it) could be seen today as heart-healthy (at least for them), even though the Greenland Inuit ate a lot of animal protein and fat.


Kjærgaard, M., Andersen, S., Holten, M., Mulvad, G., Kjærgaard, J.J. (2009). Low occurrence of ischemic heart disease among Inuit around 1963 suggested from ECG among 1851 East Greenland Inuit. Atherosclerosis, 203(2), 599-603.

Stefansson, V. (1958). Eskimo longevity in Northern Alaska. Science, 127(3288), 16-19.