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Ancient Mummies Show Heart Disease a Part of Human Aging

Modern fatty diets not entirely to blame for atherosclerosis (Mar. 10)

Atherosclerosis is often considered a hazard of modern life. New evidence suggests, however, that we may be idealizing the past, at least insofar as it applies to ancient civilizations; data suggest that life back then wasn’t quite the idyllic setting for cardiovascular (CV) health that we assumed it to be.

In fact, data from the HORUS study, released in 2011, indicated that a little less than half of a group of ancient Egyptian mummies had identifiable vascular calcification.

Now the HORUS study has been expanded, obtaining whole-body computed tomography (CT) scans of 137 mummies from four populations spanning 3,800 years in ancient Egypt, Peru, and North America. The new data indicate that atherosclerosis existed beyond the borders of Egypt. About one-third of all mummies examined, including a group of hunter-gatherers, had probable or definite atherosclerosis.

The new findings were presented at the 62nd Annual Scientific Session of the American College of Cardiology (ACC), held in San Francisco, California.

“Commonly, we think of atherosclerosis as a consequence of modern lifestyles, mainly because it has increased in developing countries as they become more westernized,” said ACC President-Elect John Gordon Harold, MD, MACC. “The data from the HORUS study of four ancient populations suggests a missing link in our understanding of heart disease, and we may not be so different from these ancient civilizations.”

The rate of atherosclerosis varied by geographical region but was still found in all mummies: ancient Egyptians (38% [29/76]); early people in present-day Peru (25% [13/51]); Ancestral Puebloan in southwest America (40% [2/5]); and Unangan people on the Aleutian Islands of modern-day Alaska (60% [3/5]).

“Assumed to be a modern disease, the presence of atherosclerosis in these disparate populations suggests the possibility of a more basic predisposition to the disease and that atherosclerosis is an inherent component of human aging with other causes or risk factors that need to be further elucidated,” Harold said.

The researchers also identified associations between age and atherosclerosis. The mean age at death among those with atherosclerosis was more than 10 years older than that of those without atherosclerosis (43 years vs. 32 years, respectively; P < 0.0001). Each 10-year increase in age was associated with a 69% increase in atherosclerosis severity.

“Physicians have blamed fast food, lack of exercise, smoking, and lifestyle factors of modern life as explaining our predisposition to heart disease,” Harold said. “We have to look beyond modern risk factors to fully understand atherosclerotic heart disease.”

Source: ACC; March 10, 2013.

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