Ancient mummies had clogged arteries

One of the diseases thought of as an affliction of modern life, atherosclerosis, was actually around in people thousands of years ago...
14 March 2013


Many people think that life was better in the good old days - but what about the good old, old days back in ancient Egypt? According to research published this week by an international team of scientists and mummy experts in the journal The Lancet, it turns out that one of the diseases that's usually thought of as an affliction of modern life - atherosclerosis, or clogging and hardening of the arteries - was actually around in people who lived thousands of years ago.

Tubercular decay of Egyptian MummyLed by Dr Randall Thomas, the researchers did CT scans of 137 mummies from four different parts of the world - Egypt, Peru, southwest America and the Aleutian Islands - spanning more than 4,000 years of history from around 3,800 BC to the turn of the 20th century. The team carefully checked out the mummies' major arteries and blood vessel beds for the characteristic signs of atherosclerosis. They found signs of the disease in around a third of all the mummies they looked at, with older mummies who died on average in their forties being much more likely to have it than those who died in their thirties.

Atherosclerosis increases the chances of having heart attacks and strokes, and it's usually thought to be caused by modern risk factors such as smoking, eating a poor diet and not exercising. But these mummies lived at a time before all of these things were major risks - including people from a pre-farming hunter-gatherer society on the Aleutian islands.

So these weren't just the classic Egyptian mummies that you might have seen in the British museum, who were likely to have had quite a luxurious life that might have put them at risk of the disease, but also regular people who had lived much simpler lives. And this isn't even the first time that mummies have been shown to have the signs of atherosclerosis - Egyptian mummies autopsied over a century ago also had evidence of the disease.

One possible cause that has been put forward is the smoke produced by cooking over indoor fires or soot from indoor oil lamps, which may increase the risk of atherosclerosis. But overall the scientists think that their findings point to the disease being a more fundamental part of human ageing than was commonly thought, and not as strongly linked to diet and other modern risk factors as we might believe. But other researchers warned that the new findings should be approached with caution, as it's not 100% clear that the kinds of evidence the scientists found on their CT scans are definitely the hallmarks of atherosclerosis, or that they would have caused heart attacks or other health problems.

We do know from large studies that eating a healthy diet, keeping active and avoiding smoking can cut the risk of heart disease. However, it's still not clear how much our individual genetic makeup may be playing a role, but this study does suggest that it's not exclusively related to an unhealthy modern lifestyle. And it also shows that the good old days may not have been that great after all.


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