CT Scans Find Vascular Disease in Ancient Mummies
Atherosclerosis — the buildup of fats and cholesterol on the artery walls that can lead to stroke and heart disease — is generally considered a problem of modern times, a result of fatty diets and inactive lifestyles. But a new examination of mummies from ancient cultures suggests that the disease appeared long before the arrival of junk food and flat-screen televisions.
Researchers performed CT scans on 137 mummies, including Egyptians, Peruvians, Aleutian Islanders and ancestors of the Pueblo people of the American Southwest.
The scans were read by seven imaging experts who judged atherosclerosis by the presence of calcification in the walls of clearly discernible arteries or along the expected route of an artery no longer visible.
Previous research has found evidence of atherosclerosis in Egyptian mummies, but mummification in Egypt was practiced among the elite, whose diet and lifestyle probably differed substantially from that of the rest of the population. Indeed, this study, published online Sunday in The Lancet, found atherosclerosis in 29 of the 76 Egyptian mummies examined.
But the researchers also found the disease in 13 of 51 Peruvian remains dated between A.D. 200 and 1500, two of five ancestral Pueblans who lived between 1500 B.C. and A.D. 500, and three of five Aleutian Islanders who lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Over all, 38 percent of the Egyptians and 29 percent of the other mummies had definite or probable evidence of atherosclerosis, the scientists concluded.
The senior author, Dr. Gregory S. Thomas, a cardiologist and medical director at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in Long Beach, Calif., said that among the mummies of people age 40 and older, 50 percent had atherosclerosis.
Diet and climate varied among these four groups. The Egyptians may have eaten a diet high in saturated fat. The Peruvians farmed corn, potatoes and beans, and they kept domestic animals. Ancestral Pueblans grew corn and hunted rabbits, deer and sheep, while the Aleutian Islanders subsisted on a diet of fish, shellfish, seals, sea otters and whale.
“Patients with vascular disease feel guilty for having it, but you shouldn’t feel guilty,” Dr. Thomas said. “It’s part of the aging process. If people had it 4,000 years ago and in four different cultures, why wouldn’t we get it now?”