A Queen, 70,000 Autopsies & Hypothyroidism

July 29, 2011

Graz, Austria – ever heard of it? I know you’re racking your brain. And no, it’s not where the Sound of Music was filmed. Not only was this Austrian city home to Johannes Kepler for a few years, but it has also shed light on an often ignored and underlying cause of heart disease: hypothyroidism., Surprisingly, Graz told us a lot about life through death. How can a city reveal the relationship between heart disease and hypothyroidism? Allow me to explain. Stay with me because we’ll have to go back a few centuries to when the story began.
During the eighteenth century, approximately 98 out of 100 infants were dying. In order to find the cause of Graz’s alarming infant mortality rate, Empress Maria Theresa mandated that all hospital deaths be autopsied in Graz. Since that time, approximately 75 percent of deaths in Graz have been autopsied, thus providing the medical community with a rare and thorough look at patterns of death since the eighteenth century.

What does this have to do with hypothyroidism?
Graz is of special interest to our study of hypothyroidism in that it is located in the heart of the goiter belt due to iodine deficiency in the soil. Thus, hypothyroidism was rampant in Graz and has provided us with a historical look at hypothyroidism’s impact within a population.
We have Dr. Broda Barnes to thank for his observations of hypothyroidism in the Graz community. Passionate about hypothyroidism research and beginning in 1958, Dr. Barnes spent each summer in Graz examining autopsy files. By 1970, Dr. Barnes had personally reviewed over 70,000 consecutive autopsy reports from 1930 through 1972. Not quite the way most of us would spend our summer vacations!
Dr. Barnes noted that the death rate from coronary artery disease in 1970 was 10 times that of 1930. Statistically, this is huge! The death rate would be expected to double, but not 10 times in 40 years! By 1970, heart attacks had increased to one in 14 deaths. There was little change in the Austrian diet during this time, so what was behind the explosion in heart attacks?
Perplexed, Dr. Barnes began to dig further and found that the rate of rise in heart attacks corresponded with a drop in deaths from infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Patients with hypothyroidism have an increased susceptibility to disease due to their weakened immune system. You may remember from our earlier post, , we discussed that prior to the advent of antibiotics most people with hypothyroidism succumbed to infectious disease at a young age such as the infants from Graz.
Dr. Barnes’ findings led him to believe that the same group whose lives were saved from tuberculosis and infectious disease eventually died from coronary artery disease!
Additional studies verify Dr. Barnes’ observations regarding heart disease and hypothyroidism:
– the Rotterdam Study in 2003
, showed that hypothyroid function was associated with heart disease.
The HUNT study in 2008 found that women with a higher TSH had a 69 percent higher rate of heart disease. .
I don’t know about you, but I’m grateful to Dr. Barnes for spending his summer vacations to get to the bottom of hypothyroidism and heart disease. What are we risking when hypothyroidism goes undiagnosed and untreated?
So, the question is: if hypothyroidism is a cause of heart disease we would expect that treating hypothyroidism would lower the rate of heart disease, right? And that’s just where we’ll begin tomorrow.


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