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Mar 26, 2013

Roots of Heart Disease Found in Mummies Dating Back 4,000 Years

Atherosclerosis is evident in one-third of mummies, across all populations in the study.

Atherosclerosis—or hardening of the arteries caused by fat and cholesterol building up on artery walls—is often considered a byproduct of modern lifestyles.  However, an international team of researchers now say that the condition was prevalent in ancient cultures around the world. 

Using a medical imaging technology called computed tomography (CT), researchers looked at mummies during different time periods and geographic locations—Egyptians living between 1900 B.C. to 200 A.D., indigenous farmers of ancient Peru living between 600 B.C. and 1500 A.D., forager-farmers living on the Colorado Plateau and hunter-gatherers from the Aleutian Islands, who lived from 1750 to 1900 A.D. They found evidence of atherosclerosis in all these populations, even in hunter-gatherers who, due to their varied diet and daily exercise, were thought to have a low risk. 

“It is surprising that atherosclerosis is so easy to find in these ancient cultures with very different genetics, lifestyles and diets,” said Randall Thompson, MD, St. Luke’s Health System, who led one of the research teams. “One implication is that this disease that we think of in terms of modern lifestyles and diet is actually related to aging. Or, perhaps we don’t understand the risk factors as well as we think we do.”

The average age of the mummies in the study at time of death was 36. Those with atherosclerosis had a significantly higher average age of 43. According to Thompson, the average lifespan in ancient times was about 40, lending evidence to the hypothesis that atherosclerosis might be an inherent part of aging for some people.

Researchers speculate that ancient risk factors may have included lifelong exposure to smoke from household cooking fires, inflammation caused by parasites and infections and stressors inherent to ancient lifestyles.

“Sitting in traffic when we’re late for work is stressful for us, but it’s nothing like famine and pestilence; they had brutal lives,” Dr. Thompson said.

The study findings may have implications for our modern day lives in terms of risk factors, prevention and treatment, notes Dr. Thompson. While these findings may point to genetic and age-related factors playing a large role in the development of atherosclerosis, he said, this is all the more reason to address the factors we can control: quitting smoking, cutting down on alcohol, eating a healthy diet, exercising and following up with health care providers to monitor blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

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