A new study published in The Lancet suggests that heart disease was more common among the ancients than previously believed. This could have implications for future study of atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular disease.
The study looked at 137 mummies from Egypt, Peru, southwest America, and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Previous studies had found atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries, in Egyptian mummies. Researchers believed at the time that the presence of heart disease in these ancient mummies resulted from their lifestyle, as people from the upper-classes were able to afford the rites of mummification. Their wealthier lifestyle included rich, fatty foods that are known today to contribute to heart disease.
However, this new study looked at mummies from many different cultures, who partook in many different diets and lifestyles. The study represented a good cross-section of the ancient population, as many of the mummies were the result of natural processes as human intervention. Thus, unlike the Egyptian mummies, not all the ancients in this study were from higher classes.
The researchers used CT scans to look for tell-tale signs of atherosclerosis; namely, calcified deposits in the vascular system. The study found that one in three of the mummies showed signs of atherosclerosis. Older individuals were more likely to show signs.
These findings support the idea that there is a basic human predisposition toward heart disease, and that such diseases are age-related. While lifestyle might be a factor in whether or not a person develops heart disease, this study suggests that genetics and age are also strong factors.