March 10th, 2013
Was Atherosclerosis the Real Curse of the Mummy?
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From a growing evidence base of mummies, researchers are now concluding that atherosclerosis may have been common in people who lived in premodern times. A new study presented at the ACC meeting in San Francisco and published simultaneously in the Lancet appears likely to challenge the common belief that atherosclerosis is largely a phenomenon of the modern era.
Several years ago investigators first reported finding evidence of atherosclerosis in 20 of 44 Egyptian mummies. Now an international group of researchers has extended this research and performed whole-body CT scans on 137 mummies from four different places and times — ancient Egypt, ancient Peru, southwest America, and the Aleutian Islands.
Probable or definite atherosclerosis was observed in 34% (47) of the 137 mummies:
- 38% (29 of 76) from ancient Egypt.
- 25% (13 of 51) from ancient Peru
- 40% (2 of 5) from Ancestral Puebloans
- 60% (3 of 5) from Unangan hunter gatherers
Atherosclerosis was found in a variety of vascular beds and was correlated with the age of the mummy at the time of death. The authors wrote:
“Our findings greatly increase the number of ancient people known to have atherosclerosis and show for the first time that the disease was common in several ancient cultures with varying lifestyles, diets, and genetics, across a wide geographical distance and over a very long span of human history. These findings suggest that our understanding of the causative factors of atherosclerosis is incomplete, and that atherosclerosis could be inherent to the process of human aging.”
Although the populations from which the mummies came did not smoke cigarettes, the authors point out that “the need for fire and thus smoke inhalation could have played a part in the development of atherosclerosis.” They also speculate that high levels of infections might have contributed to the development of atherosclerosis in this population.