Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Mummies Show Hardening of the Arteries

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Mummies Show Hardening of the Arteries

Article excerpt

It turns out that our ancestors -- meat-eating or tuber-loving, Mediterranean or Arctic, roaming or sedentary -- all could have used some Lipitor.


A new study of 137 mummified bodies, some as old as 3,500 years, found a high prevalence of hardening of the arteries, which often presages heart attack or stroke.

The condition was common in four groups -- ancient Egyptians, pre- Columbian people in Peru and Utah, and 19th-century Alaska natives - - with different diets and ways of life.

"It kind of casts doubt on -- makes us pause and think about -- whether we understand risk factors [for cardiovascular disease] as well as we thought we did," said Randall Thompson, a physician at the University of Missouri who headed a research team of 19 cardiologists, radiologists and anthropologists.

"Probable or definite" atherosclerosis was evident in 34 percent of the mummies. Only 4 percent, however, had atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries, where it can cause heart attacks. The condition was more common in people who died in middle and old age, but was also seen frequently in those dying in their 30s.

The prevalence of diseased arteries in the mummies is not very different from that seen today, leading the researchers to conclude that cardiovascular disease "is an inherent component of human aging and not characteristic of any specific diet or lifestyle."

Dr. Thompson, who is a practicing cardiologist, said he was especially surprised by how common atherosclerosis was in people whose diets are viewed in some quarters as especially healthful and disease-preventing.

The 51 ancient Peruvians, who in life presumably ate a lot of beans and complex carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes and manioc, had atherosclerosis in 25 percent of their mummies. Three of the five Aleutian hunter-gatherers, who ate a "paleo diet" high in meat and devoid of sweets and grains, showed atherosclerosis. One woman who died in her late 40s had "the kind of disease we see in people with bypass surgery," he said.

"I think we'll have a debate about just how important diet is and what we ought to be communicating to patients," he added. "A healthy diet and lifestyle may lead to less disease, but it doesn't prevent disease altogether."

Many previous studies have sought to diagnose disease in ancient preserved human remains.

One study published two years ago found atherosclerosis common in Egyptian mummies. Whether that represented what was happening elsewhere in the ancient world, or was only an occupational hazard of butter-slurping layabout priests and pharaohs, was unknown.

The new study, presented earlier this month at the American College of Cardiology meeting in San Francisco and published online by the Lancet, appears to be the first to compare findings from many different mummy populations.

Heart disease epidemiologists were quick to say the study shouldn't undermine evidence from thousands of studies suggesting that atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease is mostly a 20th- century problem.

"It's great fun, and will be a classic after the fragmentary articles over the years," Henry Blackburn of the University of Minnesota said of the paper. "Of course, it ignores all the evidence that heart attack and stroke are modern plagues that have increased and then steadily decreased over modern times. …

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