Curse of the Mummy: clogged arteries
Modern vices not to blame: CT scans were performed on 137 mummies from four world regions. Photo: AFP
Scans of mummies from as long ago as 2000BC have revealed that ancient people also had clogged arteries, a condition blamed on modern vices such as smoking, overeating and inactivity, a study has revealed.
The finding, published in The Lancet medical journal on Monday, casts doubt on our understanding of the condition known as atherosclerosis that causes heart attacks and strokes.
''The presence of atherosclerosis in pre-modern human beings suggests that the disease is an inherent component of human ageing and not associated with any specific diet or lifestyle,'' says the study.
Clogged arteries: An ancient condition. Photo: AFP
''A common assumption is that the rise in levels of atherosclerosis is predominantly lifestyle related, and that if modern humans could emulate pre-industrial or even pre-agricultural lifestyles, that atherosclerosis … would be avoided,'' cardiologist Randall Thompson, one of the authors, said.
''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.''
This did not mean that lifestyle factors should be discounted, said senior author Gregory Thomas, medical director of the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Memorial Medical Centre in California.
Atherosclerosis is a hardening and narrowing of the arteries that transport oxygen-rich blood from the heart, through a build-up of fatty material or cholesterol.
The researchers performed full-body computed tomography (CT) scans on 137 mummies from four regions in modern-day Egypt, Peru, south-west America and Alaska.
The mummies were of people who had lived over a 4000-year period from ancient Egypt to the Unangan hunter-gatherers who lived in Alaska as recently as 1930.
The team diagnosed ''probable or definite'' atherosclerosis in more than a third of the mummies on the basis of calcification of the arteries. A similar diagnostic method is used today.
''Our findings … show … the disease was common in several ancient cultures with varying lifestyles, diets and genetics,'' the scientists wrote.
The mummies of older people were more likely to show signs of the disease, as in humans today.
The ancient populations' diets included shellfish, fish, game, cattle, sheep, pigs, ducks, berries, farmed maize, beans and potato - even beer and wine in the case of the Egyptians.
None of the groups was known to be vegetarian, and physical activity was high. Smoke inhalation might have played a role, as many of the communities used indoor fires.