Heart Disease in Mummies

From Egypt to Alaska, mummies show signs of heart disease

Today, heart disease is one of the greatest threats to our health due to our increasingly sedentary lifestyle, the ubiquity of fast food and other modern risk factors.


CT scan of an Egyptian mummy showing calcification in the coronary and iliac arteries. The person suffered from atherosclerosis. Photo: Global Heart 2014; 9:197-202 (DOI:10.1016 / j.gheart.2014.03.2454)

Recent studies, however, demonstrate that even our ancient ancestors suffered from heart disease. In the June 2014 issue of the medical journal Global Heart, researchers Gregory S. Thomas, L. Samuel Wann and Jagat Narula describe a series of studies that examined mummies from around the world. CT scans of preserved mummies from Egypt, Peru, the American Southwest, Alaska and Mongolia revealed that atherosclerosis—the hardening of the arteries due to plaque build-up—was present in each of these cultures.

What caused atherosclerosis in antiquity? These cultures weren’t exposed to the same risks we are today. Humans in antiquity were more physically active, had a broader diet and didn’t use tobacco.

The researchers propose that inflammation caused by poor hygiene and infections may have contributed to the development of atherosclerosis in antiquity. And while these cultures didn’t use tobacco, the inhalation of smoke from fires may have been another factor that caused atherosclerosis.

“We noticed a trend toward more women than men developing atherosclerosis in ancient times,” said Dr. Gregory S. Thomas of MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Memorial in a press release. “The traditional role of women in these times, cooking over a fire for much of the day, could have represented the scourge of smoking of the time. Inhalation of smoke day-in and day-out could have initiated and propelled the atherosclerotic process.”

Read more about mummies and atherosclerosis in the June 2014 issue of Global Heart.

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