Feature | March 13, 2013

Mummies Reveal Hardening of the Arteries was a Problem in the Ancient World

Mummies Egypt Atherosclerosis CT Systems
PAD, mummy

Peripheral artery disease in an Egyptian mummy.

Annular valve stenosis in the heart of an Egyptian mummy.

March 13, 2013 — Atherosclerosis is usually considered to be a disease of modern human beings, related to contemporary risk factors such as smoking, obesity and 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 computed tomography (CT) scans in the Horus Study to look for the characteristic signs of atherosclerosis — vascular calcification, or 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. This was one of the most popular clinical studies presented during the American College of Cardiology (ACC) 2013 meeting.

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 more than a third (47, 34 percent) 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 — where it was possible to estimate the mummies' ages by examining their bone structure, they found that the age at time of death was positively correlated with the presence and extent of atherosclerosis.

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. The findings are particularly significant because they appear to counter the proposition that the apparent prevalence of atherosclerosis in Egyptian mummies may be due to the fact that in ancient Egyptian society, it tended to be individuals with a high socioeconomic status who were mummified. Researchers have previously speculated that these individuals would have had a diet particularly high in saturated fat, which could have led to a higher than expected prevalence of atherosclerosis.

However, according to Randall Thompson, M.D., of Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, "The fact that we found similar levels of atherosclerosis in all of the different cultures we 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."

Thompson adds, "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."

 

The research team was most surprised to find atherosclerosis among a population not suspected to be as susceptible: hunter-gatherers. Because of this population’s varied diet and high level of daily exercise, their risk factors for atherosclerosis would seem to be low. However, advanced atherosclerosis was found among mummies of the indigenous Aleutians, who even in 1900 were living traditionally: hunting seals, 
fishing and gathering berries and sea urchins. Three of the five mummified adults of this area had atherosclerosis, including a woman of approximately 50 years of age who had heavy calcifications of two of her three coronary arteries.
 
Study findings may have implications for modern day patients in terms of risk factors, prevention and treatment, notes Thompson. While these findings may point to genetic and age-related factors playing a large role in development of atherosclerosis, he said, this is all the more reason for patients today to address the factors they can control: quitting smoking, cutting down on alcohol, eating a healthy diet, exercising and following up with health care providers to monitor blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
 
The Horus Study is the culmination of an international collaboration between physicians, anthropologists and biologists from numerous medical centers as well as the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the British, Egyptian, Brooklyn, University of Pennsylvania, and Peruvian Peruchuco Museums. The study was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Bank of Egypt, Siemens and the St. Luke’s Hospital Foundation. 

For more information: www.thelancet.com

Related Content

cardiac surgery, simulation training, University of Washington, case studies

Multiple repetitions of bypass grafts on a heart, using the Ramphal simulator. Courtesy of the University of Washington in Seattle.

News | Cardiovascular Surgery| August 25, 2016
August 25, 2016 — Simulation training fo
aortic dissection, family history, same age, clinical study, John A. Elefteriades, Annals of Thoracic Surgery
News | Structural Heart| August 25, 2016
People with a family member who had an aortic dissection — a spontaneous tear in one of the body’s main arteries —...
nanoparticles, blood clotting, internal bleeding, American Chemical Society study, Erin B. Lavik

Nanoparticles (green) help form clots in an injured liver. The researchers added color to the scanning electron microscopy image after it was taken. Image courtesy of Erin Lavik, Ph.D.

News | Hemostasis Management| August 24, 2016
August 24, 2016 — Whether severe trauma occurs on the battlefield or the highway, saving lives often comes down to...
Intact Vascular, TOBA clinical study, one-year results, Tack Endovascular System, Journal of Vascular Surgery
News | Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD)| August 24, 2016
Intact Vascular Inc. announced that the one-year results from its Tack Optimized Balloon Angioplasty (TOBA) clinical...
News | Heart Failure| August 23, 2016
August 23, 2016 — A new study of more than 13,000 people has found that so-called morbid obesity appears to stand alo
Jason Burdick, injectable hydrogels, heart failure, heart attack, American Chemical Society

Compared to other types of hydrogels being developed (left), a new hydrogel (right) can form crosslinks after injection into the heart, making the material stiffer and longer-lasting. Image courtesy of American Chemical Society.

News | Heart Failure| August 23, 2016
August 23, 2016 — During a heart attack, clots or narrowed arteries block blood flow, harming or killing cells within
sleep apnea, hypertension, clinical study, Science Signaling, University of Chicago
News | Hypertension| August 22, 2016
Obstructive sleep apnea is a common cause of high blood pressure. In the Aug. 17, 2016, issue of the journal Science...
atomic bombs, radiation exposure, long-term health effects, Bertrand Jordan, study
News | Radiation Dose Management| August 19, 2016
The detonation of atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 resulted in horrific...
TAILOR-PCI study, antiplatelet medication, genotype, NHLBI grant
News | Antiplatelet and Anticoagulation Therapies| August 18, 2016
Researchers at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, Toronto, and at Mayo Clinic are leading the Tailored Antiplatelet Therapy...
warfarin, long-term stability, atrial fibrillation, DCRI study, Sean Pokorney
News | Antiplatelet and Anticoagulation Therapies| August 16, 2016
August 16, 2016 — Warfarin prescribed to prevent strokes in...
Overlay Init