Study: Mummies Have Atherosclerosis, Too


Using CT scans, researchers examined the remaining arteries of 137 mummies, and found signs of probable or definite atherosclerosis in 34 percent.

Web Figure 5C 615.jpg
Hatiay, a male Egyptian scribe who lived during the New Kingdom (1570-1293 BCE), enters the CT scanner. [The Lancet]

We're quick to blame modern diets -- and heavy drinking, and smoking, and lack of exercise -- for atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries that can cause heart attack and stroke. And there's no reason not to, because it's caused by a buildup of fat and cholesterol in the walls of our arteries. We're also quick to think of the condition, as with all heart disease, as a unique side-effect of our unique -- as compared to most of human history -- lifestyle.

And yet ancient people of Egypt, Peru, southwest America, and Alaska commonly suffered from hardened arteries, too. Using CT scans, researchers examined the remaining arteries of 137 mummies, and found signs of probable or definite atherosclerosis in 34 percent of them.

These "pre-modern" humans probably weren't cheeseburger-happy desk workers. The authors analyzed their presumed diets and lifestyles, which varied widely for the four societies. The mummified Egyptians, they write, were likely to have been wealthy, and therefore probably consumed a lot of saturated fat. This is in fact not the first time that hardened arteries were identified in Egyptian mummies. And yet the Unangans, of the Aluetian Islands in Alaska, subsisted almost entirely on marine life. They, and the other mummies, were preserved naturally through climate factors, not because they had attained any special status that would have privileged them with extra-rich foods. 

But that ancient people, too, had calcified arteries, conclude the authors, "suggests that the disease is an inherent component of human aging and not necessarily associated with any specific diet or lifestyle." Indeed, the mummies with signs of calcification tended to be older, or what in those days counted as age: they died at around 43 years as opposed to 32. For each decade of life the mummies survived before being mummified, the risk of severe atherosclerosis increased by 69 percent.

Figure 5B.jpgEvidence of carotid artery disease in Hatiay

Put more colorfully, "We found that heart disease is a serial killer that has been stalking mankind for thousands of years," one of the study's lead authors, Randall Thompson, said in a statement.

In modern men and women over the age of 50, the condition's prevalence is as high as 82 and 68 percent, respectively. And certain behaviors certainly increase this risk -- these findings in fact emphasize the importance of controlling for those factors, like diet, that are indeed controllable. As with last summer's counter-intuitive findings that sedentary office workers burn as many calories in a day as modern hunter-gatherers, this should at the very least make us question whether the good old days of pre-modern living were as ideal as we tend to imagine them.

The full study, "Atherosclerosis across 4000 years of human history: the Horus study of four ancient populations," was presented at the American College of Cardiology's 61st Annual Scientific Session & Expo and will be published in The Lancet.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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