Even without modern-day temptations like fast food or cigarettes, people had clogged arteries 4,000 years ago, according to the biggest-ever study of mummies searching for the condition.
Researchers say that suggests heart disease may be more a natural part of human aging rather than being directly tied to contemporary risk factors like smoking, eating fatty foods and not exercising.
CT scans of 137 mummies showed evidence of atherosclerosis, or hardened arteries, in one third of those examined, including those from ancient people believed to have healthy lifestyles. Atherosclerosis causes heart attacks and strokes. More than half of the mummies were from Egypt while the rest were from Peru, the southwest of the US and the Aleutian islands in Alaska.
The mummies were from about 3800 BC to 1900 AD.
“Heart disease has been stalking mankind for over 4,000 years all over the globe,” said Randall Thompson, a cardiologist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City and the paper’s lead author.
The mummies with clogged arteries were older at the time of their death, about 43 versus 32 for those without the condition. In most cases, scientists could not say whether the heart disease killed them.
The study results were announced on Sunday at a meeting of the American College of Cardiology in San Francisco and simultaneously published online in the journal Lancet.
Thompson said he was surprised to see hardened arteries even in people like the ancient Aleutians, who were presumed to have a healthy lifestyle as hunter-gatherers.
“I think it’s fair to say people should feel less guilty about getting heart disease in modern times,” he said. “We may have oversold the idea that a healthy lifestyle can completely eliminate your risk.”
Thompson said there could be unknown factors that contributed to the mummies’ narrowed arteries. He said the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in underground caves in modern-day Colorado and Utah, used fire for heat and cooking, producing a lot of smoke.
“They were breathing in a lot of smoke and that could have had the same effect as cigarettes,” he said.
Some experts warned against reading too much into the mummy data.
Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation said calcified arteries could also be caused by other ailments and that it was impossible tell from the CT scans if the types of calcium deposits in the mummies were the kind that would have sparked a heart attack.
“It’s a fascinating study, but I’m not sure we can say atherosclerosis is an inevitable part of aging,” he said, citing the numerous studies that have showed strong links between lifestyle factors and heart disease.