Ancient Mummies Had High Rates of Heart Disease, Too

Clogged arteries, or in scientist talk, "atherosclerosis," has long been associated with our modern, gluttonous ways, including our propensity for smoking and obesity. Americans, naturally, considered such diagnoses a matter of national pride, an example of their freedom to choose. But according to a recent study, this particular form of heart disease was relatively common thousands of years ago, with roughly one third of the ancient mummies examined showing signs of the disease.

The study measured signs of atherosclerosis in 137 mummies, some over 4,000 years old, from places around the world, including Alaska, the American southwest, Peru and Egypt. Of the 137 x-rayed, 47 of of the mummies, or 34%, showed signs of clogged arteries. The fact that the disease was found in mummies from different geographical locations and social classes was significant, according to the study's leaders.

Study leader Professor Randall Thompson, of Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, said: "The fact that we found similar levels of atherosclerosis in all of the different cultures we studied, all of whom had very different lifestyles and diets, suggests that atherosclerosis may have been far more common in the ancient world than previously thought.

"Furthermore, the mummies we studied from outside Egypt were produced naturally as a result of local climate conditions, meaning that it's reasonable to assume that these mummies represent a reasonable cross-section of the population, rather than the specially selected elite group of people who were selected for mummification in ancient Egypt."

He said it is commonly thought that if modern humans could emulate pre-industrial or even pre-agricultural lifestyles, that atherosclerosis would be avoided.

"Our findings seem to cast doubt on that assumption, and at the very least, we think they suggest that our understanding of the causes of atherosclerosis is incomplete, and that it might be somehow inherent to the process of human ageing."

So is this an excuse to smoke and eat all you want? Because you'll probably get clogged arteries once you're old anyway? Alas, no.

Maureen Talbot, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: "This small study takes us back in time to give an insight into the heart health of people in the ancient world.

"However, we simply don't know enough about the diet and lifestyle of the people studied to say whether behaviour or genetics lies at the root of the heart problems observed.

"We can't change the past, but lifestyle choices can help to affect our future.

"By eating well, quitting smoking and keeping active, you can help to protect your heart."

[BBC/Image via AP]