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Unwrapping secrets

Mummy entering scanner during testing
The mummy of a woman from ancient Peru enters a scanner during research

Mummy CT scans show ancestors suffered from clogged arteries

“Our research shows that we are all at risk for atherosclerosis, the disease that causes heart attacks and strokes – all races, diets and lifestyles,” says Gregory Thomas, M.D., MPH, a UC Irvine School of Medicine volunteer clinical professor.

Thomas backs up his comments with proof from beyond the grave: He has spent years studying mummies, showing that they had calcified patches on their arteries indicative of advanced atherosclerosis (from the Greek arthero, meaning “gruel” and scler, meaning “hard”).

Like nearly 4.6 million Americans, ancient hunter-gatherers also suffered from clogged arteries, revealing that the plaque build-up causing blood clots, heart attacks and strokes is not just a result of fatty diets or couch potato habits, according to a study led by Thomas and Randall Thompson, M.D., that appeared in the March edition of the journal The Lancet.

The researchers performed CT scans of 137 mummies from across four continents and found artery plaque in every single population studied, from preagricultual hunter-gatherers in the Aleutian Islands to the ancient Puebloans of southwestern United States.

“Because of this we all need to be cautious of our diet, weight and exercise to minimize its impact,” said Thomas. “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.”

An earlier study Thomas was involved in focused on ancient Egyptians, who tended to mummify only royalty or those who had privileged lives. The new study examined mummies from four drastically different climates and diets.

The findings provide an important twist to our understanding of atherosclerotic vascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in the developed world: While modern lifestyles can accelerate the development of plaque on our arteries, the prevalence of the disease across human history shows it may have a more basic connection to inflammation and aging.

Overall, the researchers found probable or definite atherosclerosis in 34 percent of the mummies studied, with calcification of arteries more pronounced in the mummies that were older at time of death. Atherosclerosis occurred in half of those older than 40-years-old. Atherosclerosis was equally common in mummies identified as male or female.

Nathan Wong, PhD, director of the Heart Disease Prevention Program in the Division of Cardiology, who was not involved in the study, notes "the finidings from Dr. Thomas and his collegagues are noteworthy in representing some of the earliest evidence of atherosclerosis that has been carefully documented and quantified" and may provide some insight into the pattern of lifestyles these people may have lived.

Wong, who has extensively studied subclinical atherosclerosis in contemporary population, confirms findings of vascular calcification prevalences exceeding 60 percent in a large recently published multiethnic cohort aged 45-84, and more than 90 percent by age 75-84.

Dr. Thomas and his international team of researchers will next seek to biopsy ancient mummies to get a better understanding of the role chronic infection, inflammation and genetics in promoting the prevalence of atherosclerosis.