Mummy CT Scans Show Even Ancient Cultures Dealt With Heart Disease
March 11, 2013

Mummy CT Scans Show Even Ancient Cultures Dealt With Heart Disease

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Modern lifestyle factors — those that include smoking, eating fatty foods and lack of exercise — have been associated with unhealthy hearts for decades. But a new study in The Lancet suggests this decades-old health issue is in fact much older — at least 4,000 years older.

The evidence comes from CT scans of ancient mummies, where researchers found calcification in their arteries, which suggests hardening of the arteries was common even in ancient cultures. Finding plaques in the arteries of ancient peoples suggests modern doctors may be missing something about how cholesterol builds up and leads to atherosclerosis.

Study co-author Gregory Thomas, medical director of MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute in Long Beach, California, said the evidence also suggests that atherosclerosis is a “basic component of aging.”

The multi-institutional study, which was presented this weekend at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology in San Francisco, was carried out on 137 mummies from all over the world: ancient Egypt, Peru, the southwestern United States and the Aleutian Islands near Alaska.

The study found a third (47) of the 137 mummies studied had hardening of the arteries, revealing that the plaque build-up that leads to blood clots, heart attacks and stroke is not just associated with too many Ding Dongs and Dough-boys. The researchers found evidence of artery plaque in every population studied.

"This is not a disease only of modern circumstance but a basic feature of human aging in all populations," said senior author Caleb Finch, ARCO/Kieschnick Professor of Gerontology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology. "Turns out even a Bronze Age guy from 5,000 years ago had calcified, carotid arteries," Finch said, referring to Otzi the Iceman, a natural mummy who lived around 3200 BCE and was discovered frozen in a glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991.

Study lead author Randall Thompson, of Saint Luke´s Mid America Heart Institute, along with Thomas and Finch, first believed that they would only find evidence of advanced atherosclerosis in the ancient mummies of Egypt, those who would have been mummified because of their social status; those who were of royalty.

The common theory was that royalty was more associated with fatty food in the diet than the common ancestor, which would lend credence to calcification in the mummified arteries of hierarchical figures. However, upon their CT scan investigations, the team found evidence of plaque in all four regions studied, in both royal mummified corpses and common-folk.

"Our research shows that we are all at risk for atherosclerosis, the disease that causes heart attacks and strokes — all races, diets and lifestyles," said Thomas. "Because of this we all need to be cautious of our diet, weight and exercise to minimize its impact. The data gathered about individuals from the pre-historic cultures of ancient Peru and the Native Americans living along the Colorado River and the Unangan of the Aleutian Islands is forcing us to think outside the box and look for other factors that may cause heart disease."


The researchers found the greatest amount of calcification in the mummies who were oldest at time of death, which suggested to them that age plays a big factor in the development of atherosclerosis. They also found that the condition was just as common in both male and female mummies.

"We found that heart disease is a serial killer that has been stalking mankind for thousands of years," Thompson said. "In the last century, atherosclerotic vascular disease has replaced infectious disease as the leading cause of death across the developed world. A common assumption is that the rise in levels of atherosclerosis is predominantly lifestyle-related, and that if modern humans could emulate pre-industrial or even pre-agricultural lifestyles, that atherosclerosis, or at least its clinical manifestations, 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 aging," Thompson said in a statement.


The researchers still do not have any exact answers as to why atherosclerosis was so common in the pre-industrial age.

It´s possible that it is part of the natural aging process. Or it could be possible that humans who lived in the days before antibiotics often dealt with frequent infections that led to more inflammation, said Thompson. Inflammation is known to contribute to atherosclerosis and people with inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, tend to develop atherosclerosis 10 to 15 years earlier than normal, he explained.

It is highly likely that ancient life could have been hard on the arteries in other ways than smoking and industrial soot. Ancient cultures generally relied on cooking over open fires, and people in the Aleutians lit and heated their underground homes with lamps made from whale and seal oil, which creates high amounts of soot.

The evidence served as a double-standard, according to coauthor Jagat Narula, a paleocardiologist and professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center. People who were better nourished lived a lot longer. But it is also these people that were more likely to develop age-related arterial plaques, Narula explained to Liz Szabo at USA TODAY.

But Narula adds that the diets of these ancient people were not as healthy as most people may assume. The Aleutian peoples were hunter-gatherers who ate a lot of fatty meat and blubber from seals and whales, along with other seafood, eggs and berries. Those in the other cultures were more agriculturally sustained, but still relied heavily on meat from domesticated animals and eggs.


"This small study takes us back in time to give an insight into the heart health of people in the ancient world,” Maureen Talbot, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said in an interview with the BBC. "However, we simply don't know enough about the diet and lifestyle of the people studied to say whether behavior 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,” she added. "By eating well, quitting smoking and keeping active, you can help to protect your heart."

The researchers now plan to biopsy the ancient mummies to gain more insight into the role chronic infection, inflammation and genetics played in promoting the prevalence of atherosclerosis.

"Atherosclerosis starts very early in life. In the United States, most kids have little bumps on their arteries. Even stillbirths have little tiny nests of inflammatory cells. But environmental factors can accelerate this process," Finch said, pointing to studies that show larger plaques in children exposed to household tobacco smoking or who are obese.