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People of European descent, can be real fatheads, their bodies storing fat in unusual places, such as the brain. Scientists trace this trait to their Neanderthal ancestors.

One of the oddities of growing older, if you happen to have the genes for it, is the phenomenon of ectopic fat deposits. Ectopic fat deposits can make you a literal fathead. But we mean that only in the nicest possible way.

Ectopic Fat Deposits, an Inheritance from the Neanderthals

In some people's bodies, fat doesn't just accumulate on the hips, around the waist, or thundering on the thighs. About the age of 40, some people start accumulating fat deposits between their vital organs, forming what is known as an omentum, and even in their vital organs, such as the heart, liver, and brain. 

These stray deposits of body fat are known as "ectopic" fat. And genetic analysis has found that the genes for ectopic fat are part of the inheritance of many of Europeans from their distant Neanderthal ancestors.

In 2010, scientists recovered a 50,000 year-old toe bone from a dig in the Ural Mountains on the western edge of Siberia. Tens of thousands of years in a natural deep freeze had preserved the DNA in the toe bone, giving researchers their first opportunity to analyze the complete sequence of Neanderthal DNA. Neanderthals, an ancient relative of modern human beings, went extinct about 30,000 years ago, but not before intermarriage with the ancestors of modern human beings.

These matings between Neanderthals and humans occurred in the ancient Middle East after the ancestors of today's Africans and Asians had migrated to other parts of the globe, so it is primarily people of European ancestry, rather than Asian, African, Native American, or Native Australian ancestry, who carry Neanderthal genes. Most contemporary people of European descent have between 1 and 4% Neanderthal DNA.

Differences in Fat Metabolism, Too

Modern people who carry the Neanderthal genes are prone to accumulation of fat in odd places. It can grow inside bones. It can grow inside the heart and the liver. And it can grow inside the brain.

Because fat cells generate inflammatory compounds, these misplaced fatty tissues can wreak havoc in the tissues in which they grow. When these fat cells finally "get the message" that they are in the wrong tissue and self-destruct, the chemicals that destroy them can also destroy healthy cells of the tissues around them. 

When fat cells accumulate in muscle, they can slowly damage the muscles that would burn the fat they release.

And unlike the soft, jiggly fat that can accumulate directly below the skin, the visceral fat called the omentum can "strangle" vital organs and hasten the diseases of aging. But could there possibly be anything good about the biology that turns you into a literal fathead?

Perfectly Adapted to a Severe, Cold Climate

What the Neanderthals had going for them that they passed on to their offspring with humans was a superb ability to withstand the cold and starvation. All those fat cells provided the tissues around them with ready energy when food was in short supply. Brown fat cells even acted as little heaters to keep the body warm. People who have European genetics still tend to stand up better to extreme cold, and certain metabolic conditions that are more common among people of European descent, such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, are not as severe during cold weather.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Khrameeva EE, Bozek K, He L, Yan Z, Jiang X, Wei Y, Tang K, Gelfand MS, Prufer K, Kelso J, Paabo S, Giavalisco P, Lachmann M, Khaitovich P. Neanderthal ancestry drives evolution of lipid catabolism in contemporary Europeans. Nat Commun. 2014 Apr 1. 5:3584. doi: 10.1038/ncomms4584.
  • Mindmap by steadyhealth.com
  • Photo courtesy of Nathan McCord, U.S. Marine Corps by Wikimedia Commons : commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Diorama,_cavemen_-_National_Museum_of_Mongolian_History.jpg

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