More than 4,000 year old mummies had atherosclerotic heart disease

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Well, that’s a cover. It seems that heart disease and stroke are not just modern phenomena, but have been around for a long time. Like a really long time. CT scans of 237 adult mummies found evidence of atherosclerosis in 37.6% of them. as described in a recent publication in the European Heart Journal.

And these weren’t mummies from last week, last year, or even the last decade, since wrapping people up and turning them into mummies after death isn’t exactly common these days. Instead, these mummies came from earlier cultures that spanned more than 4,000 years. We’re talking about 161 of the mummies coming from ancient Egypt, 54 from lowland Peruvian farmer-fishermen, three from Bolivian highland Andean farmer-pastoralists, four from 19th century Unangan/Aleutian Islander hunter-gatherers, four from 16th century Greenlandic Inuit hunter-gatherers, five from Ancestral Puebloan and four from medieval Gobi Desert pastoralists.

Of the 237 adult mummies scanned between 1999 and 2022 as part of the Global HORUS Study, 91 (38.4%) were female, 139 (58.6%) were male, and seven (3%) were of undetermined gender.

In the days of mummifying the dead, life expectancy was much shorter. In fact, the estimated average age of death for the mummies in the study was about 40 years old. This meant that atherosclerosis was probably already present in many people in their thirties and forties.

Atherosclerosis is when the arteries in your body become thicker or harder. This occurs when plaques consisting of cholesterol, fat, blood cells, calcium and other substances build up in the inner wall of the artery. Inflammation can also contribute to this thickening and hardening. Over time, atherosclerosis begins to restrict blood flow through the arteries so that they cannot continue to supply blood and oxygen to body parts such as the heart muscle and brain, leading to conditions such as heart attacks and strokes, respectively.

The study found that the most common location of atherosclerosis was the aorta, present in 21.5% of mummies. The second most common location was the ilio-femoral arteries (20.7%), followed by the popliteal-tibial arteries (16%), the carotid arteries (14%), and the coronary arteries (0.4%).

Of course, mummies isn’t exactly the right word when it comes to what really happened while these people were alive. The mummification process and everything that has happened since could have deformed and changed the vascular system and body tissue in many ways. This could make detecting atherosclerosis via CT scans much more difficult. The researchers did state that they were conservative in determining whether a CT finding actually represented the presence of atherosclerosis. So 37.6% may not have been the true prevalence of atherosclerosis among the people when they were alive. In fact, the prevalence could have been even higher.

Nevertheless, all this suggests that atherosclerosis and resulting medical conditions such as heart disease and stroke are not just the result of modern living conditions and that people are living longer. Instead, people may have a longstanding innate predisposition to develop atherosclerosis over time.

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