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.

MummySeveral 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.

3 Responses to “Was Atherosclerosis the Real Curse of the Mummy?”

  1. Antonio Reis, Ph.D says:

    Bad teeth, high carbohydrate consumption, diabetes, infectious diseases, inflammation:
    Ancient Egyptians, depending on their wealth and status, could have a varied diet, but central to their nourishment was bread and beer. From very early on, both were consumed at every meal, by everyone, and no meal was considered complete without them.
    “Hatshepsut’s mummy is that of an obese, diabetic 50 year old woman with bad teeth. All the conditions that nutritionists today would have us believe would be prevented by Hatshepsut’s diet. It certainly didn’t work for her. And she is not a special case – most Egyptian mummies show the same disorders, especially the bad teeth. The skeletal remains of Paleolithic man, who consumed a meat-based diet, showed strong, perfect teeth. Bad teeth are the hallmark of carbohydrate consumption.”
    Modern hunter-gatherers have the lowest cholesterol levels in the current populations, and carry many infectious diseases. This aspect has been positively correlated with low cholesterol levels. I agree with the authors of the study – Thompson and colleagues – who suggested that the high level of chronic infection and inflammation might have promoted the inflammatory aspects of atherosclerosis.

  2. Pablo Corral, MD says:

    High levels of inflammation, chronic infections and inflammatory diseases contribute to the genesis of atherosclerosis, but the indispensable precondition are the high levels of cholesterol or the presence of different lipid fractions altered, that finally are internalized in the subendothelial space and develop foam cells and finally the atherosclerotic plaque. No lipid alteration, no atherosclerosis…

  3. Uffe Ravnskov, MD, PhD says:

    I agree with Antonio Reis; low cholesterol predispose to infections. Although it has been documented by at least a dozen researchers during the last sixty years, few know that the lipoproteins, in particular LDL, are important actors in the immune system by binding and inactivating all kinds of microorganisms and their toxic products. Together with Kilmer McCully (he who discovered the association between homocysteine and atherosclerosis) I have tried to explain how the complexes between LDL and the microorganisms end up in the arterial wall and initiate atherosclerosis. You can read more about this innate immune system and our hypothesis in Ann Clin Lab Sci 2009;39:3-16 and in Am J Med Sci. 2012;344:391-4