Ancient Mummies Had Heart Disease

Mummy!-SLWhat do ancient mummies and heart disease have in common? Apparently quite a bit, according to media reports this week.

A recent study found that much like modern day humans, our ancestors also suffered from calcification of the arteries, commonly known as plaque or atherosclerosis.

The study results were announced Sunday in the medical journal Lancet.

Scientists performed x-ray and CT scans of 137 mummies found in Egypt, Peru, the Arctic and the southwest US. The results showed that even 4000 years ago, our ancestors suffered from the same calcification of the arteries.

This has led some in the media to conclude that strokes and heart attacks may have been just as prevalent in the ancient world as they are today.

“I think it’s fair to say people should feel less guilty about getting heart disease in modern times,” said Dr. Randall Thompson, the lead author of the study, “We may have oversold the idea that a healthy lifestyle can completely eliminate your risk.”

However, there are some that have questioned the logic of his conclusion.

Aside from the fact that there have been numerous studies over the years, which have definitively shown a link between poor lifestyle and heart disease, Dr. Stephan Guyenet, a neurobiologist, points out one other glaring problem with Dr. Thompson’s conclusion:

“Although arterial calcification was common in all cultures represented by the mummies, it was less common in the coronary arteries, where it matters most for heart attack risk.”  

Apparently, only 4% of the mummies studied showed any significant calcification of the arteries going to the heart and in fact, some were mummified without their hearts attached! Consequently, it’s impossible to know the true health status of these ancient mummies.

While the new mummy data may not change much, the findings are interesting and they do add to what we already know about atherosclerosis.

Although atherosclerosis is a normal part of aging, lifestyle factors such as poor diet and lack of exercise are the main factors that have been shown to increase the severity of this problem and increase the risk of heart disease.

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