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Hardening of arteries found in ancient mummies

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
March 13th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Ancient mummies from around the world have yielded surprises to modern researchers. Many of the mummies showed signs of heart disease, hardening of the arteries or atherosclerosis. The findings suggest that heart disease, brought upon by lifestyle choices and diet may not be an entirely modern health issue.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - A study in The Lancet of 137 mummies up to 4,000 years old found a third had signs of atherosclerosis. The findings may suggest a more basic human pre-disposition.

Atherosclerosis has been discovered in a significant number of Egyptian mummies. It was speculated that they would have come from a higher social class, where their diets were high in saturated fat.

However, researchers used CT scans to look at mummies from Egypt, Peru, southwest America, and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. They found that 47 or 34 percent showed signs of definite or probably atherosclerosis.

Researchers were able to attribute a definite case of atherosclerosis by looking for the tell-tale signs of vascular calcification. Calcified deposits were still present in sites where arteries would have once been. Older people seemed to be more likely to show signs of the disease, as they do in present times.

What made these recent discoveries so striking was that it allowed researchers a glimpse at the disease in people living in disparate global regions, with different lifestyles and at different times.

"The fact that we found similar levels of atherosclerosis in all of the different cultures we studied, all of whom had very different lifestyles and diets, suggests that atherosclerosis may have been far more common in the ancient world than previously thought," Study leader Professor Randall Thompson, of Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, said.

"Furthermore, the mummies we studied from outside Egypt were produced naturally as a result of local climate conditions, meaning that it's reasonable to assume that these mummies represent a reasonable cross-section of the population, rather than the specially selected elite group of people who were selected for mummification in ancient Egypt."

In the past, it was widely thought that if modern humans could emulate pre-industrial or even pre-agricultural lifestyles, that atherosclerosis would be avoided.

"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."

Maureen Talbot, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, added that "we simply don't know enough about the diet and lifestyle of the people studied to say whether behavior or genetics lies at the root of the heart problems observed.

"We can't change the past, but lifestyle choices can help to affect our future. By eating well, quitting smoking and keeping active, you can help to protect your heart."

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