Mummy study: Heart disease was a prehistoric ailment, too

In study, more than one-third of the mummies showed signs of atherosclerosis

CT scans from 137 mummies suggests that atherosclerosis—the calcification or hardening of the arteries that can lead to heart attack and stroke—may have plagued prehistoric humans, too.

The new study—which was published in the journal The Lancet and presented Sunday at an American College of Cardiology meeting in San Francisco—examined mummies from varied geographic regions and dietary background:

  • 77 were Egyptian who likely ate high-fat diets;
  • 51 were Peruvian who likely farmed corn and potatoes;
  • Five were Native American who likely were forager-farmers; and
  • Five were natives of the Aleutian Islands, who likely were hunter-gatherers.

CT scans of the mummies found evidence of possible or definite hardening of the arteries in 34% of the mummies. In individuals mummified after age 40, about half showed signs of atherosclerosis.

Randall Thompson—the lead study author and a cardiologist at St. Luke's Mid America Heart Institute—said the findings show that "heart disease has been stalking mankind for 4,000 years."

Gregory Thomas—study co-author and medical director of MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute—said the findings suggest that artery calcification is "either a basic component of aging, or that we are missing something very important that is a cause of atherosclerosis."

In addition, the study notes that frequent infections could have caused prehistoric humans to suffer from chronic inflammation, which can contribute to atherosclerosis. They also often cooked or found heat with open fires, which means they may have inhaled large amounts of smoke or soot (Lopatto, Bloomberg, 3/10; Steenhuysen, Reuters, 3/10; Szabo, USA Today, 3/10).

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