Examining the mummies of five ancient cultures, the Horus research team discovered atherosclerosis, narrowing of the arteries due to a build-up of fatty deposits, was present in humans long before we acquired modern lifestyles.
Modern lifestyles are often blamed for causing blocked arteries but our long-dead ancestors suffered from the same unhealthy symptoms, some scientists claim
The remarkably preserved mummies, including Egyptians living 3,000 years ago, bear the unmistakable hallmarks of heart disease.
The findings suggest that genetically humans may be inherently susceptible to atherosclerosis.
Dr Gregory Thomas, Director of Medicine in California, has suggested potential causes for this modern disease occurring in ancient times.
CT scans found atherosclerosis, the narrowing of the arteries due to build-up of fatty deposits, which is the underlying disease process that causes heart attack and strokes
None of these cultures suffered from significant obesity, lack of physical activity, cigarette smoking, or other well-known ‘modern’ risk factors that can cause narrowing of the arteries and raise the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems.
A mummy entering a CT scanner in the Egyptian Museum
Thomas comments, “These ancient people were unaware of the germs lurking in the unhygienic environments in which they lived, animals and people living side by side, inadequate sewage, contaminated water.”
“They did not know that the germs amongst which they lived caused infection after infection. In addition to frequent bacterial and viral infections, the ancient Egyptians likely suffered from lifelong parasitic infestations,” he explains.
“Modern medicine, knowledge and antibiotics had not yet arrived.”
A strong and prolonged inflammatory effort by the body would have been necessary to fight off the infections that plagued ancient humans.
However, this intense inflammatory response may have accelerated the inflammation that occurs when cholesterol, an unwelcome guest, gets into the wall of an artery.
A beautiful decorated mummy undergoes a CT scan
As evidence, he mentions the 1974 investigation into the mummy ‘Nakht’, a teenage boy who worked as a weaver around 1200 BC in Thebes, or Luxor as we know it now.
The extensive examination found that Nakht was infected with four parasites, and suffered from bilharzia, malaria and tapeworm infestation.
Malaria parasite (photo: Lennart Nilsson-Scanpix)
Dr Thomas notes, “If Nakht is representative of those living along the ancient Nile, these populations must have endured enormous, lifelong inflammatory burdens.”
Other mummies were found to be harbouring tuberculosis infections.
Thomas and colleagues suggest the inflammatory process, necessary to fight off infection in ancient times in particular, could backfire by promoting atherosclerosis in the absence of modern risk factors.
Tobacco was not available to any of these ancient cultures, but could smoking represent another cause for this unexpected atherosclerosis?
Modern appliances were unavailable, and cooking was performed over a fire. The same fire could be used to ward off insects and for light and warmth.
Dr Thomas comments, “we noticed a trend toward more women than men developing atherosclerosis in ancient times.”
Computerised tomography (CT) scans provide information to help diagnose medical conditions in ancient Egyptian mummies
The traditional role of women in these times, cooking over a fire for much of the day, could have represented the scourge of smoking of the time.
Inhalation of smoke day-in and day-out could have initiated and propelled the atherosclerosis process.
Thomas observes that the bulk of our modern risk factors were discovered several generations ago, before genetic testing and modern biomarker analysis.
“Each year we learn more and more about the impact of the human genome and molecules in our blood, and so to believe we have already uncovered all the causes, or risk factors, of atherosclerosis may be wishful thinking.”
A mummy from the British Museum being scanned by Manchester University PhD student Abeer Helmi at Manchester Royal Infirmary
The discovery of new causes could dramatically reshape the frequency and impact of atherosclerosis today.
This is not the first time that scans of ancient Egyptian mummies have revealed heart disease.
Earlier studies have revealed fatty arteries in a large number of Egyptian mummies, which experts put down to their luxurious, fatty diets.
“Atherosclerosis is supposed to be a disease of modern civilisation,” Dr Adel Allam, a nuclear cardiologist at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, told Alan Mozes of Health Day.
He believes that heart disease risk is not just about poor diet and obesity, but that genetics may also come into play.
Last year, CT scans of 137 mummies showed evidence of atherosclerosis, or hardened arteries, in one third of those examined.
A 2,500 year old mummy undergoes a CT scan in Cairo
‘Heart disease has been stalking mankind for over 4,000 years all over the globe,’ said Dr Randall Thompson, a cardiologist in Kansas City.
“I think it’s fair to say people should feel less guilty about getting heart disease in modern times. We may have oversold the idea that a healthy lifestyle can completely eliminate your risk.”