Home / News / Heart Disease #1 Killer of Great Apes in Captivity, Researchers Trying to find cure and prevention
Heart Disease #1 Killer of Great Apes in Captivity, Researchers Trying to find cure and prevention

Heart Disease #1 Killer of Great Apes in Captivity, Researchers Trying to find cure and prevention

Other apes are more alike than unalike the human apes, not just in their genetic make-up, but also concerning heart disease.  We are all members of a family called Hominidae.  All the apes in this family are tailless primates, with a greater brain to body ratio, as well as other commonalities, such as heart disease being a top killer of the species.

According to the Great Ape Heart Project, in Atlanta Georgia, heart disease is the number one killer of the great apes living in captivity.

The great apes include chimps, orangutans, gorillas, and humans. Great apes are members of the family Hominidae, which includes humans, chimps, gorillas, and orangutans.  Scientists believe that we split from Chimps around 6 to 7 million years ago and from orangutans about 14 million years ago, but we still share similar features and illnesses, such as heart disease.  They truly are our closest cousins.

Researchers at the Atlanta zoo, home of the Great Ape Heart Project, research heart disease in the Great Apes in order to understand, diagnose, and treat heart disease in other apes.  The four non-human great apes living in captivity, which researchers in the project study, are gorillas, chimps, bonobos, and orangutans.

Dr. Hayley Murphy, doctor of veterinary services at the Atlanta zoo, stated in the video, “We don’t really know what’s causing it and once we understand that, hopefully we can treat it.  Our ultimate goal would be to prevent it.”

She further stated that any information we can get on an orangutan is helpful, because we do not know what is normal.  “We don’t know what normal references are in an orangutans.”

One of the healthy orangutans was the first to have an awake-ultrasound, after researchers successfully trained her to lay still for the test.  He sits still about as well as a human child, but due to months of training, researchers are able to get usable ultrasounds reports on him and other apes.

ATLANTA — The 9-year-old patient sits still, munching on popcorn and sipping grape juice while he gets an ultrasound of his heart.

The reporter in the video stated that anesthesia “can be dangerous for an ape with heart disease”.  The tests are still useful on a healthy orangutan.

“It’s really cool to follow an animal from infancy through adulthood.  Nobody has ever done that, so it’s going to give us a lot of clues as to when does heart disease start, what does it look like when it starts, does it change over time.”  Murphy said in the video.

The zoo also started drawing blood from orangutans, who are awake, including a 28-year-old female, which allows veterinarians to look at biomarkers in the blood, which can help chart the progression of heart disease in apes and treat it.

Healthy apes can be put under anesthesia but the drugs are dangerous for those already suffering from heart problems. Awake procedures expand the amount of data researchers can collect, Murphy said.

According to the Washington Post, “researchers hope to determine how similar apes and humans are when it comes to cardiac disease.”  One orangutan is taking human medication to stop the spread of his heart disease, but researchers are not sure just how well human medications will work with his heart disease due to little data on their hearts.

Researchers also study hypertension in the apes at the Great Ape Heart Project.  While their hearts look just like human apes, high blood pressure might be different in the other apes, so researchers are attempting to get more information in this area also.

In humans, 120/80 mmHg is considered a normal value for blood pressure, and anything over 140/90 mmHg is considered high.  While we share over 98% of our DNA with great apes and our hearts look very similar, the heart of a gorilla is actually more hyper-dynamic than a human heart – meaning – they contact more rigorously than our hearts do.  Therefore, what is considered a normal blood pressure value in a human may not be considered a normal value for an ape.  The fact remains, we do not know what is a “normal” value for blood pressure in any ape besides humans and will not know until more measurements are taken, recorded systematically, and assessed for patterns.

Maybe, since humans are similar to other apes, the information researchers acquire with these studies could help humans with heart disease too. This research might be a two-way street that helps both humans and other apes concerning heart disease, possibly contributing to better treatments for humans as well as other apes. Our closest cousins could potentially help us, just as we try to help them.

About Mriana

Mriana is a humanist and the author of "A Source of Misery", who grew up in the Church of God, Anderson Indiana. After she became an adult, she joined the Episcopal Church, but later left the Church and became a humanist. She has two grown sons and raises cats. Mriana raised her sons in the Episcopal Church, but in their teen years, they left the Church and she soon followed. One of her sons became a "Tao Buddhist" and the other a None, creating his own world view. She enjoys writing, reading, science, philosophy, psychology, and other subjects. Mriana is also an animal lover, who cares for their welfare as living beings, who are part of the earth. She is a huge Star Trek fan in a little body.
  • joe paterno

    sedentary lifestyle, no privacy, ,,,, treated as a sub-species,…, experimented on,…

    • Actually, I have no issues with this type of experimentation, because it helps the other apes and they aren't doing anything to them that they would do on us.  They aren't harming them with the medical tests and eventually they hope to help them.  I also don't think, being in the Atlanta zoo, they are stuck in that cage all the time.  Oddly enough, given that other apes are an endangered species, they are safer in some zoos and wildlife preserves than if we did nothing.  The reserves are better and the ideal setting, but even then poachers get in and slaughter them, never getting caught for their crimes.  IMO, this is a good thing humans are doing for the other apes.  It could give them longer and healthier lives, in a safer environment.  These particular apes cannot just be turned lose in the wild, because they have no idea what that is like nor do their offspring.  Part of the reason their population is not gone is because of us humans are trying to help them, with reserves and better, healthier, living conditions in zoos like Atlanta.  So it's not all bad and some do have families, contrary to extremists opinions.

      I'm an animal lover and if I thought they were harming the apes, I would not post this in this manner.  I'd be having a fit and a rant about it.  While I believe animals should have rights, I am not an extremist about it.  There is no humane reason to set these particular apes lose in the wild, so we might as well do something to help them live better lives.  To set them lose in the wild, considering it freedom, would do them more harm than good, because they have no idea what is out there and would be killed within a few days.  Thus why we have Orangutan Island, a reserve specially made for those orangutans no knowledge of the wild.  Even then, some did not make, but some did and they are learning, with the help of humans, still giving them medical care, how to survive on the island.  The ones who become sick go to a facility that attempts to treat their illness and hopefully keep the illness from spreading if it is contagious and not too late for the others.  Thus, human intervention is not all bad, esp if they have not lived in the wild.

      Those that do live in the wild, Jane Goodall and others have set up reserves and try to keep poachers away, but they still try to medically help those they can, when medical help is needed, but because they do not always understand they are being helped a cage to transport them and care for them is still needed for the vet and the ape's protection and safety.  IMHO, care within reason is necessary to help other animals.  Extremism though, is not the answer.

Scroll To Top