Mummy CTs Show Atherosclerosis a 4,000-Year-Old Problem

March 11, 2013

CT scans of mummies show that plaque build-up and clogged arteries occurred among people 4,000 years ago, as well as today.

CT scans of mummies show that plaque build-up and clogged arteries occurred among people 4,000 years ago, as well as today, according to a study published in the Lancet.

Researchers from the USC Davis School of Gerontology performed CT scans on 137 mummies from ancient Egypt, ancient Peru, the Ancestral Puebloans of southwest America, and the Unangan of the Aleutian Islands. The goal was to find evidence of atherosclerotic vascular disease, connecting it to inflammation and aging, in addition to modern diet and exercise habits. The mummies in this study were considered to be regular people of their time, as opposed to a previous study that looked at ancient Egyptians who only mummified royalty or privileged people.

The CT images showed probable or definite atherosclerosis in 34 percent (47 of the 137 mummies); including 38 percent (29 of 76) ancient Egyptians, 25 percent (13 of 51) ancient Peruvians, 40 percent (two of five) Ancestral Puebloans, and 60 percent (three of five) Unangan hunter gatherers. Atherosclerosis was equally common among males and females.

"Our research shows that we are all at risk for atherosclerosis, the disease that causes heart attacks and strokes - all races, diets and lifestyles," Gregory Thomas, medical director of the Memorial Care Heart & Vascular Institute, Long Beach Memorial, said in a release. "Because of this we all need to be cautious of our diet, weight and exercise to minimize its impact. The data gathered about individuals from the pre-historic cultures of ancient Peru and the Native Americans living along the Colorado River and the Unangan of the Aleutian Islands is forcing us to think outside the box and look for other factors that may cause heart disease."

More research will be conducted, with an international team of researchers seeking to biopsy the mummies to further understand the role of chronic infection, inflammation and genetics in promoting the prevalence of atherosclerosis.

"Atherosclerosis starts very early in life. In the United States, most kids have little bumps on their arteries. Even stillbirths have little tiny nests of inflammatory cells,” said study senior author Caleb Finch, a USC University professor and ARCO/Kieschnick Professor of Gerontology. “But environmental factors can accelerate this process.”

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Figure 1 - Carotid disease: Coronal 3D volume rendered CT reconstruction showing carotid artery disease. Bilateral carotid, bilateral subclavian, and brachiocephalic calcification of Hatiay (mummy 23), a male Egyptian scribe aged 40–50 years, who lived during the New Kingdom (1570–1293 BCE) and was found near modern day Luxor. All images courtesy The Lancet.

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Figure 2 - Iliac and aortic bifurcation calcifications: Coronal three-dimensional (3D) volume rendered CT reconstruction of mummy with calcifications in the distal aorta and iliac arteries. Aortic and iliac calcification in the mummy of an Egyptian woman (mummy 38) aged 45–50 years, of unknown era from ancient Egypt, who was found in the Fayoum Oasis.

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Figure 3 - Iliac and aortic bifurcation calcifications: Coronal three-dimensional (3D) volume rendered CT reconstruction of mummy with calcifications in the distal aorta and iliac arteries. Aortic and iliac calcification in the mummy of a woman from ancient Peru (mummy 101), aged 41–44 years, of the Early intermediate to Middle Horizon (200–900 CE), excavated from Huallamarca (near Lima), Peru.