Research Finds Heart Disease in Mummies

heartHeart disease, a modern affliction caused by our sedentary lifestyle filled with high fat, high cholesterol, fried fast food and other junk. To avoid this killer we should live a simpler life that harkens back to the days of the hunter gatherers who ate leaner and were very active. That is the key to avoiding this killer. Or is it?

A recent study headed by Dr. Randall Thompson of St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri indicates that all this health talk we’ve been fed might not be the diet that that it’s cracked up to be. Okay, that might be overstating it a bit, but the study by Dr. Thompson and his colleagues does provide food for thought, so to speak. The study, which was presented as part of a meeting of the American College of Cardiology in San Francisco and was published online in the journal Lancet, examined the results of the CT scans of 137 mummies. This study, dubbed HORUS after the Egyptian god, found evidence in the CT scans that seemed to fly in the face of what we’ve been told about our modern lifestyles.

The mummies were representative of four different cultures from different parts of the world and ranged in date of origin from 3800 B.C. to 1900 A.D. The mummies that were examined were from ancient Egypt, ancient Peru, the Puebloans of southwest America, and the Unangan of the Aleutian Islands in what is now Alaska. According to Dr. Miguel Quinones of WeillCornellMedicalCollege, this diversity in subjects was very exciting because it showed that the results were not limited to a certain time or culture. Dr. Thompson extended this sentiment, saying: “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.”

What the study revealed was that roughly thirty percent of the mummies scanned showed calcification in their arteries. This calcification, while not conclusive, is an indicator that these individuals suffered from atherosclerosis. The findings were not limited to one group or area. As determined by a panel of 7 cardiologists who reviewed the scans, 29 of the 76 Egyptian mummies, 13 of the 51 Peruvian mummies, two of five Ancestral Puebloans, and three of the five Unangan hunter gatherers were determined to have definite or probable disease.

The researchers said it was unclear what caused the atherosclerosis in the subjects since they came from disparate regions and partook in varied diets. One similarity in all of the cultures was the use of fire in most aspects of their life. While smoking was not part of their lifestyle, breathing in the smoke from cooking fires or fires used for heating could well have had similar results.

The fact that there can be other causes for calcification than atherosclerosis in the arteries in the subjects is a weakness in the study. Dr. Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said it was impossible to tell the cause of the calcium buildup in the arteries of the subjects. They could’ve been caused by other conditions such as endocrine disorders. “It’s a fascinating study but I’m not sure we can say atherosclerosis is an inevitable part of aging,” he said, referring to the numerous studies showing strong correlation between lifestyle variables and heart disease.

According to Dr. Thompson the study’s “findings… suggest that our understanding of the causes of atherosclerosis is incomplete, and that it might be somehow inherent to the process of human ageing.”  He also warned that the results of this study are not an endorsement of leading anything but a healthy lifestyle.