Heart disease present in ancient mummies
- 11 March 2013
- From the section Health
Fatty arteries may not just be a curse of modern unhealthy lifestyles, say researchers who used scans to look at the heart health of mummies.
A study in The Lancet of 137 mummies up to 4,000 years old found a third had signs of atherosclerosis.
Most people associate the disease, which leads to heart attacks and strokes, with modern lifestyle factors such as smoking and obesity.
But the findings may suggest a more basic human pre-disposition.
Previous studies have uncovered atherosclerosis in a significant number of Egyptian mummies but it had been speculated that they would have come from a higher social class and may have had luxurious diets high in saturated fat.
To try and get a better picture of how prevalent the disease was in ancient populations, the researchers used CT scans to look at mummies from Egypt, Peru, southwest America, and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.
They found that 47 or 34% showed signs of definite or probably atherosclerosis.
Where the mummies' arterial structure had survived, the researchers were able to attribute a definite case of atherosclerosis by looking for the tell-tale signs of vascular calcification.
In some cases, the arterial structure had not survived but the calcified deposits were still present in sites where arteries would have once been.
As with modern populations, they found that older people seemed to be more likely to show signs of the disease.
The researchers said the results were striking because they had been able to look at the disease in people living in disparate global regions, with different lifestyles and at different times.
Study leader Professor Randall Thompson, of Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, said: "The fact that we found similar levels of atherosclerosis in all of the different cultures we studied, all of whom had very different lifestyles and diets, suggests that atherosclerosis may have been far more common in the ancient world than previously thought.
"Furthermore, the mummies we studied from outside Egypt were produced naturally as a result of local climate conditions, meaning that it's reasonable to assume that these mummies represent a reasonable cross-section of the population, rather than the specially selected elite group of people who were selected for mummification in ancient Egypt."
He said it is commonly thought that if modern humans could emulate pre-industrial or even pre-agricultural lifestyles, that atherosclerosis would be avoided.
"Our findings seem to cast doubt on that assumption, and at the very least, we think they suggest that our understanding of the causes of atherosclerosis is incomplete, and that it might be somehow inherent to the process of human ageing."
Maureen Talbot, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: "This small study takes us back in time to give an insight into the heart health of people in the ancient world.
"However, we simply don't know enough about the diet and lifestyle of the people studied to say whether behaviour or genetics lies at the root of the heart problems observed.
"We can't change the past, but lifestyle choices can help to affect our future.
"By eating well, quitting smoking and keeping active, you can help to protect your heart."