Heart disease isn’t just an ailment of eating modern-day processed food and lack of activity, according to a study of mummies from four different cultures.
The study of 137 mummies from populations that included ancient Egyptians, Peruvians, early peoples of the Southwestern U.S. and the Aleutian Islands found that one third of them had hardened arteries. The findings suggest that aging had more to do with their conditions, researchers said.
The diets among those cultures varied, and hardened arteries, which can lead to heart attacks and stroke, were even seen among hunter-gatherers, according to a study presented at the American College of Cardiology’s Scientific Sessions in San Francisco. That was surprising, since the hunter-gatherers’ diet varied widely and their lifestyle would have required a great deal of physical activity.
Though the buildup of cholesterol and fat in the arteries is often viewed as a consequence of modern diets, the mummies’ veins suggest that it’s also part of aging, said Randall Thompson, a cardiologist at St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City. While diet and exercise play a role, some doctors may have oversold what can be done to stop the inevitable through lifestyle factors, he said.
“One downside to that is patients feel guilty when they have a heart attack, they feel like it’s their fault,” said Thompson, who is also a professor of medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, in a telephone interview. “But heart disease has been stalking mankind for 4,000 years.”
The mummies with the most gunk in their blood vessels were an average age of 43; the overall average age of the mummies was 36.
The study was initially inspired by a placard in Cairo one of the investigators saw. It labeled the mummy of Merneptah, the successor of Ramses the Great, saying he suffered from heart disease. The investigators decided to find out for sure.
When arteries harden, they create calcium residue, Thompson said. That residue can be seen on a CT scan, which uses X-rays to make pictures of the body.
The 77 Egyptians, who lived between 1991 BC and 200 AD, had a rich, high-fat diet. The 51 Peruvians were corn and potato farmers who lived from 600 to 1500. The 5 Hisatsinom, indigenous people native to the Colorado Plateau who lived around 1000 years ago, were forager-farmers. The most recent mummies were the hunter-gatherers: 5 Unangan, natives of the Aleutian Islands, who lived between 1750 and 1900.
That 3 of the 5 Unangan had heart disease was the biggest surprise, Thompson said. Many people have suggested that diets closer to hunger-gatherer ancestors and exercise would prevent it. That doesn’t seem to be the case, he said.
“One of the Unangan mummies had very extensive calcification in the coronary arteries,” Thompson said. “This is someone who likely would have needed a bypass operation.”