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Study of mummies reveals heart disease may have been common in ancient world

The study of 137 showed a high prevalence of a disease that was thought to be cause by modern factors like smoking, obesity and lack of exercise.

The head of an Ancient Egyptian Mummy in Philadelphia.
The head of an Ancient Egyptian Mummy in Philadelphia.
Image: Matt Rourke/AP

A STUDY OF 137 mummies from four different geographical regions around the world has revealed that a disease that causes heart attacks and strokes may have been more common among ancient peoples than previously thought.

The study, spanning 4,000 years of human history found a high prevalence of atherosclerosis, or hardening and narrowing of the arteries. The findings of the study were published in the online journal The Lancet today.

It was previously thought that the disease, which causes heart attacks, was a modern condition, related to contemporary risk factors like smoking, obesity and a lack of exercise. However, the researchers suggest that the high prevalence of atherosclerosis in pre-modern humans may support the possibility of a more basic human predisposition to the disease.

An international group of researchers used CT scans to look for the characteristic signs of the disease – the build-up of a hard calcified substance along the walls of arteries – in 137 mummies from ancient Egypt, Peru, southwest America, and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.

Where the mummies’ arterial structure had survived, the researchers were able to attribute a definite case of atherosclerosis where they found signs of vascular calcification. In some cases, the arterial structure had not survived mummification, but the calcified plaque was still present in sites where arteries would have once been, in which case the researchers attributed a probable case of atherosclerosis.

Overall, the researchers found that 34 per cent of the mummies examined showed signs of probable or definite atherosclerosis. As with modern populations, they found that older people seemed to be more likely to show signs of the disease.

Although previous research has uncovered atherosclerosis in a significant proportion of Egyptian mummies, this is the first study to look for the signs of arterial hardening in mummies from cultures living in disparate global regions, with different lifestyles and at different times.

Commenting on the results, Professor Randall Thompson, of Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, USA said that the fact that researchers found similar levels of atherosclerosis in all of the different cultures 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 added.

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