Thousands of years ago, robust humans still fell prey to atherosclerosis and heart attacks.

Heart disease is thought to be a modern-day ailment, but it turns out that the arteries of ancient men and women weren’t in great shape either. Researchers have found evidence of atherosclerosis in a number of ancient mummies from around the world. Atherosclerosis is hardening of the arteries that lead to the heart caused by a buildup of plaque.

A paper published earlier today in Global Heart reported that atherosclerosis is surprisingly easy to find in the remains of ancient humans from Egypt, Peru, the Aleutian Islands, North American, East Asia, and Europe. Researchers reviewed computed tomographic (CT) scans of the mummies to detect calcification in the arteries.

“The fact that it’s so easy to find these calcifications, these residues and sediments, in ancient people is surprising,” said study co-author Dr. Randall Thompson, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Missouri School of Medicine in Kansas City and a cardiologist and researcher at the St. Luke’s Mid American Heart Institute. “It was surprising to us and a lot of people.”

Diet, environment, and exercise habits are known to contribute to atherosclerosis risk today, but these findings suggest that looking at other risk factors, such as inherited genetic risk, could be helpful.

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Two of Thompson’s colleagues hit on the idea for this research when they were visiting a museum in Egypt and noticed a description of a mummy that included the fact that the mummified body showed signs of atherosclerosis. That first mummy got the researchers curious, leading them to ultimately test the remains of 76 ancient Egyptians.

Researchers reviewed CT scans of the 76 Egyptian mummies, and 38 percent were found to have probable or definite calcification in their arteries.

We know what the ancient Egyptians ate because of surviving writings. It turns out that high-status ancient Egyptians ate a diet full of fat and protein.

“When we dig deeper into the lifestyle of these ancient people, we find that they were exposed to the same risk factors as we are today,” said Dr. Jagat Narula, Ph.D., editor of Global Heart and a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in an email to Healthline. “Egyptian elites were carried in palanquins (sedentary lifestyle), and they had excess to ample food with well established agriculture and animal husbandry (dietary indiscretion).”

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To find risk factors unrelated to diet, the researchers reviewed the remains of other populations. Aleutian Islanders were hunter-gathers who lived a traditional lifestyle fishing from kayaks, Thompson says, which is quite different from the lives of the Egyptian elites.

“We have all these different cultures and different diets, different cross sections and the disease is so easy to find, and in some of the populations that were not eating a rich diet at all,” Thompson said.

With the study of more diverse populations came the realization that there are other risk factors for atherosclerosis beyond poor diet and lack of exercise. Exposure to smoke from campfires, as well as parasites and chronic inflammation, could have been contributing risk factors for ancient peoples.

“Not just the ancient ones,” Thompson said. “Maybe genetic and environmental risk factors that we hadn’t thought of. This kind of challenges us, that maybe we don’t know as much as we thought we did about the risk factors and causes that may be contributing to atherosclerosis.”

One key risk factor appears to be hidden in our genes.

The remains of the famous Tyrolean Iceman “Ötzi” were also studied. Ötzi is more than 5,000 years old, and his remains were well preserved in ice. Researchers found that Ötzi’s lifestyle probably did not include traditional risk factors for atherosclerosis — he most likely ate well and exercised. But what Ötzi did have are specific genetic mutations that are known to increase the risk of atherosclerosis and heart attacks.

Moving forward, researchers would like to test for DNA risk factors for atherosclerosis and see if more can be learned about the relative risks for ancient peoples and modern humans.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, user 120.

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