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Hi-tech scans of ancient mummies from around the world show evidence of heart disease

Hi-tech scans of ancient mummies from around the world show evidence of heart disease


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Research has shown that some Egyptian mummies, dating back as far as 3,500 years ago, show evidence of clogged arteries and heart disease. However, critics had dismissed the findings as being related to their luxurious, fatty diets, rather than to any kind of genetic predisposition. However, a new study has found that it was not just the wealthy and indulgent elite of ancient Egypt who suffered from the condition. High-tech scans of 76 mummies from all around the world, who came from a variety of different social backgrounds, revealed that a significant percentage suffered from clogged arteries, a condition which can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

It is widely assumed that today's high rates of heart and artery disease are primarily the result of unhealthy modern lifestyles. But if this were the whole story, we would not expect to find the condition in ancient humans.

“Atherosclerosis is supposed to be a disease of modern civilisation,” said Dr Adel Allam, a nuclear cardiologist at Cairo’s Al Azhar University. “It's supposed to be explained by the fact that we're eating all the wrong foods, not exercising enough, becoming obese and having diabetes. And a lot of people have said that if we could just go back to the way our ancestors were living we could even lose this problem.”

However, new research suggests that a fatty diet is not the complete picture. In the latest study, Dr Allam and colleagues extended previous research by including naturally mummified remains from different areas, including Peru, Alaska, Nevada, and Mongolia, and from different socioeconomic backgrounds. The sample of 76 mummies were then subjected to high-tech scans which revealed that 38 per cent of them had arterial disease. The results were compared to 178 scans from a modern population and it was found that there was no difference in severity between the ancient and the modern samples.

The researchers concluded that unhealthy modern lifestyles, poor diet, and obesity are not the only cause of heart disease and suggested that we should not discount the role that genetics play in the condition.

Featured image: Egyptian mummy undergoing a CT scan. Photo source .


    Evidence of atherosclerosis found in 16th-century mummies from Greenland

    Harvard research assistant Emily Venable '17 examines mummified remains that would later undergo CT scans, revealing evidence of plaque in the arteries. Credit: Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

    What secrets lie in the hearts of our ancestors? Signs of cardiovascular disease, for one, as a team of cardiovascular-imaging experts from Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) recently helped discover.

    Through a collaboration with Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology and an international team of researchers and anthropologists, BWH faculty and staff performed CT scans on five mummies from 16th-century Greenland in the Shapiro Cardiovascular Center early last year. The team was looking for evidence of plaque in the arteries—also known as atherosclerosis—to see if the leading cause of death in the U.S. today was also prevalent centuries ago.

    Sure enough, high-resolution scans of the mummified remains—belonging to four young adults and one child from an Inuit community—revealed the telltale hardened calcium deposits in various blood vessels in the chest.

    "It's always fascinating to look at humans who lived hundreds of years ago and see if learning about the past could teach us more about the present and future," said Ron Blankstein, associate director of the Brigham's Cardiovascular Imaging Program, director of cardiac computed tomography, and a preventive cardiology specialist.

    Blankstein was among the experts who scanned the mummies and interpreted the images in 2018, an event featured on National Geographic's "Explorer" series. The effort was part of a broader project, led by a group of external researchers, to scan mummies from hunter-gatherer and preindustrial civilizations around the world to search for signs of heart disease.

    From Egypt to Mongolia and now Greenland, mummies throughout the ages have shown evidence of atherosclerosis. The Greenland mummies were of particular interest due to their diet, which would have primarily consisted of fish and sea mammals.

    While increased fish consumption is commonly touted as heart-healthy—which may make the findings of atherosclerosis seem surprising—Blankstein emphasized that scientists still have much to learn about its relationship to cardiovascular health. For example, although it is known that consuming fish rich in omega-3 fats has benefits, some types of fish can also be high in cholesterol and, in the current era, contain toxins like mercury or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that may pose risk, he said.

    Lifestyle factors, such as exposure to cooking smoke in their dwellings, may have also contributed to the mummified individuals developing cardiovascular disease during their lifetimes, Blankstein said. Given that and the small sample sizes of these mummy scans, he noted that the team's findings shouldn't be taken too much to heart.

    "The question of whether fish is good or bad for you is still open-ended, and it would be unrealistic to think that we could provide a definitive answer by scanning a small number of mummies for plaque," Blankstein said. "Our team found it fascinating that there was evidence of atherosclerosis despite the mummies' estimated young ages, but this also doesn't mean cardiovascular disease is inevitable. In fact, the majority of cardiovascular disease events that we see in patients is preventable with appropriate diet, weight control, and lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise at times, medication can also be used to treat various risk factors."

    High-resolution scans were done on the mummified remains. Credit: Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Credit: Harvard University

    A different kind of patient

    Scanning the mummies wasn't too different from work the cardiovascular imaging team normally does. In fact, they were a little easier to scan than living patients normally, the CT scanner must account for the movement of a beating heart.

    Interpreting the images required a different perspective, however, Blankstein explained.

    "This is not the same as scanning a human. All of the organs are decomposed—in fact, you don't see much of the heart at all," he said. "The major plaque we saw was not necessarily in the arteries of the heart but in some other blood vessels in the chest, such as the aorta or some arteries of the neck."

    In addition to satisfying the team's intellectual curiosity, Blankstein said he hopes the findings will inspire people to learn more about atherosclerosis and how to reduce their risk.

    "It was certainly an exciting and interesting experience, and I hope we can use it to promote awareness of this mostly preventable disease," he said.


    Mummies With Heart Disease Show That Clogged Arteries Aren't Just Modern Ailment

    Mummies from thousands of years ago and around the world show evidence of clogged arteries, new research finds.

    The findings, published Sunday (Mar. 10) in the journal The Lancet, suggest that atherosclerosis, a form of heart disease wherein calcium deposits narrow the arteries, may have been a universal disease in all human societies, and not wholly a result of the modern diet.

    "In three different continents and a total of five different sites prehistoric peoples had atherosclerosis," said study co-author Caleb Finch, a neurobiologist at the University of Southern California. While some researchers believed hardening of the arteries was a 20th-century disease, that results from modern overconsumption of fatty, sugary foods, "the generality of our observations suggests it is really a basic part of human aging under all circumstances."


    A CT scan of a mummified, mid-forties woman who lived in what is now Peru between 1100 and 1800 years ago revealed evidence of narrowed arteries.

    Nature or nurture?

    People have long debated whether clogged arteries and heart disease resulted from the fat and sugar-laden modern diet or an inevitable vagary of aging. There's no doubt that westernized diets have worsened diabetes, obesity and chronic disease, but whether a more primitive diet could completely eliminate those scourges was debatable.

    Finch and his colleagues used CT scanning to analyze the arteries of 137 mummies that spanned 4,000 years. The mummies came from Peruvian, ancestral Pueblo Indian, indigenous Aleutian islander, and ancient Egyptian populations. Some had been deliberately mummified, while others were naturally mummified due to environmental conditions. [Gallery: Scanning Mummies for Heart Disease]

    Most of the mummies were younger than about 60 years old. Despite some of the people coming from societies with a grain-based diet and others likely consuming mainly meat and fish, mummies from all regions showed atherosclerosis, or calcium deposits in their arteries. That can narrow the arteries and reduce blood flow, and if the calcium deposits rupture, it can cause heart attacks.

    The findings suggest that heart disease may be an unavoidable part of human aging. It's not clear how far back in evolutionary history this problem emerged: Our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, don't get atherosclerosis in the wild but do in captivity, Finch told LiveScience.

    Even if it's universal, however, that doesn't give people license to chow down on funnel cake and bacon, as ample evidence suggests modern fat- and sugar-heavy diets have worsened heart disease over the last century, Finch said.

    CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that all the mummies exhibited signs of atherosclerosis in fact, the symptoms were observed in mummies from all regions studied, but not in every individual mummy.


    King Tut&aposs Erased History

    Not only is King Tut’s death a mystery, there are also gaps in the story of his life. Tutankhamun was the son of a controversial Egyptian king, Akhenaten, who decreed that Egypt would worship a single god, Aten, instead of many, and moved its capital from Thebes to Amarna. Politically, Egypt grew weak during Akhenaten’s 13-year reign, according to David P. Silverman, professor of Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania, who was curator of the first King Tut exhibit in 1978 at the Field Museum of Chicago.

    Silverman says that Tut restored the old gods and their temples, erasing the changes brought by his heretical father and returning the kingdom to stability. The rulers who followed erased written representations of both father and son from Egyptian’s important list of kings, he explains, and both tombs were considered lost until their discovery in the early 20 century.

    “They specifically tried to take memory of the entire family away by not including them in later lists of kings. It’s as if these people didn’t exist,” Silverman says.

    While records of his life were erased, in death, King Tut became ancient Egypt’s most famous pharaoh. Carter hinted at that future fascination when he first entered the pharaoh’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Asked by a colleague on the outside if he saw anything, Carter replied, “Yes, wonderful things.” 


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    ‘It's supposed to be explained by the fact that we're eating all the wrong foods, not exercising enough, becoming obese and having diabetes.

    ‘And a lot of people have said that if we could just go back to the way our ancestors were living we could even lose this problem,’ he added.

    In a previous study, scientists looked for evidence of heart disease by taking an X-ray of the mummified remains of Esankh who lived in the third Intermediate period (1070-712 BC)

    EGYPTIAN PRINCESS IS OLDEST PERSON TO HAVE HEART DISEASE

    An Egyptian princess who lived more than 3,500 years ago is the oldest known person to have had clogged arteries, dispelling the myth that heart disease is a product of modern society.

    Dr Allam and colleagues made the discovery in 2011 when they found the Egyptian princess Ahmose-Meryet-Amon, who lived in Thebes between 1540 and 1550 B.C., had calcium deposits in two main coronary arteries.

    The princess' father and brother were both pharaohs. The mummy had pierced ears and a large incision in her left side made by embalmers to remove her internal organs.

    Dr Allam doubted she would have received much treatment beyond maybe taking special herbs or honey.

    'If she were my patient today, she would get open heart surgery,' he said. He added the princess' clogged arteries looked remarkably similar to heart disease in contemporary Egyptians.

    Dr Allam and his colleagues presented their findings at the recently concluded American College of Cardiology annual meeting, in Washington.

    The group had previously found identified hardening of the arteries in 16 mummies at the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo.

    Of these, nine showed evidence of atherosclerosis - build-up of fatty materials such as cholesterol, in blood vessels.

    But the group decided to expand their initial study to include naturally mummified specimens from other societies and economic backgrounds.

    Samples were gathered from Lima, Peru from the Aleutian people in Alaska from Native Americans in Nevada and from people in Mongolia.

    Dr Allam said he wanted to respond to any criticism that mummies of Egypt only represented a rich elite, who would have eaten more fatty foods.

    The scientists scanned 76 mummies from around the world and arterial disease was found in around 38 per cent of them, with the average age of death estimated at 37.

    The team also scanned 178 Cairo cancer patients, aged from 14 to 48, and found that 61 per cent of them had arterial hardening.

    ‘There was no difference between the mummies and patients in terms of atherosclerosis incidence or severity,’ Dr Allam said. ‘They were nearly equivalent’.

    Dr Allam added that heart disease risk is not just about poor diet and obesity, but that genetics may also come into play.

    A second CT reconstruction from an earlier study shows a mummy from 200-900 AD of a Peruvian woman in her 40s, excavated from Huallamarca, near Lima, with calcifications in the arteries

    Last year, 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 .

    'Heart disease has been stalking mankind for over 4,000 years all over the globe,' said Dr Randall Thompson, a cardiologist at Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City and the 2013 paper's lead author.

    Dr 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.


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    The findings suggest that genetically humans may be inherently susceptible to atherosclerosis.

    Dr Gregory Thomas, medical director at Long Beach Memorial in California, said its discovery among many ancient cultures means obesity, diet and smoking are not the only culprits.

    CT scans like the one pictured of hundreds of bodies found artherosclerosis, the narrowing of the arteries due to build-up of fatty deposits, which is the underlying disease process that causes heart attack and strokes

    CT SCANS REVEAL CLOGGED ARTERIES WERE A COMMON PROBLEM IN ANCIENT EGYPT

    This is not the first time that scans of Ancient Egyptian mummies have revealed heart disease.

    It was revealed in April that scans of 4,000-year-old mummies showed evidence of hardening of the arteries.

    Earlier studied 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 - including those from ancient people believed to have healthy lifestyles.

    'Heart disease has been stalking mankind for over 4,000 years all over the globe,' said Dr Randall Thompson, a cardiologist at Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute 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.

    Dr Thomas said ‘There is a surprising similarity in the amount and distribution of atherosclerotic calcifications, fatty deposits, between ancient Egyptians and current Americans of a similar age.

    ‘This is observed, even though many of what we believe to be major risk factors must be different between the two populations.

    ‘There was no tobacco in ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptians must have been more active than current Americans, and some of the dietary issues that exist in the USA today did not exist in ancient Egypt.’

    Instead researchers believe the disease could have been caused by chronic inflammation triggered by repeated infections due to poor hygiene, lack of sanitation and living in close proximity to animals.

    For example, the mummy ‘Nakht,’ a teenage boy who worked as a weaver circa 1,200 BC in Thebes was infected with four parasites including tapeworm and malaria, while others had TB.

    Dr Thomas said ‘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 ancients likely suffered from lifelong parasitic infestations. Modern medicine, knowledge and antibiotics had not yet arrived.’

    The inflammatory process, which cells use to fight infection, has been proven to speed up the inflammation that happens when cholesterol gets into the wall of the artery, which leads to further build-up of fatty deposits.

    The disease was also more common in women, who would have been repeatedly exposed to the smoke from cooking fires, which the scientists believe had the same effect on the arteries as smoke from cigarettes.

    Only the ancient Egyptians were wealthy enough to have enjoyed the fat-laden diet and sedentary lifestyle commonly associated with the disease. Yet atherosclerosis was discovered in common people from the other four cultures. A previous study shows a mummy from 200-900 AD of a Peruvian woman in her 40s, excavated from Lima, with calcifications in the arteries

    Researchers behind a series of studies published in Global Heart, the journal of the World Heart Federation, call for a fresh look at risk factors not associated with rich living.

    Dr Thomas said ‘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.

    ‘Using the past to predict the future, as these ancient people unexpectedly had atherosclerosis, we need to continue to search for other potential fundamental causes of atherosclerosis.

    ‘The discovery of new causes could dramatically reshape the frequency and impact of atherosclerosis today.

    ‘This should lead to re-evaluation of the root causes of atherosclerosis, and may lead to entirely new avenues of prevention and early treatment.’


    Ancient Mummies Had Clogged Arteries, Too

    Mummies from thousands of years ago and around the world show evidence of clogged arteries, new research finds.

    The findings, published Sunday (Mar. 10) in the journal The Lancet, suggest that atherosclerosis, a form of heart disease wherein calcium deposits narrow the arteries, may have been a universal disease in all human societies, and not wholly a result of the modern diet.

    "In three different continents and a total of five different sites prehistoric peoples had atherosclerosis," said study co-author Caleb Finch, a neurobiologist at the University of Southern California. While some researchers believed hardening of the arteries was a 20th-century disease, that results from modern overconsumption of fatty, sugary foods, "the generality of our observations suggests it is really a basic part of human aging under all circumstances."

    Nature or nurture?

    People have long debated whether clogged arteries and heart disease resulted from the fat and sugar-laden modern diet or an inevitable vagary of aging. There's no doubt that westernized diets have worsened diabetes, obesity and chronic disease, but whether a more primitive diet could completely eliminate those scourges was debatable.

    Finch and his colleagues used CT scanning to analyze the arteries of 137 mummies that spanned 4,000 years. The mummies came from Peruvian, ancestral Pueblo Indian, indigenous Aleutian islander, and ancient Egyptian populations. Some had been deliberately mummified, while others were naturally mummified due to environmental conditions. [Gallery: Scanning Mummies for Heart Disease]

    Most of the mummies were younger than about 60 years old. Despite some of the people coming from societies with a grain-based diet and others likely consuming mainly meat and fish, all of the mummies showed atherosclerosis, or calcium deposits in their arteries. That can narrow the arteries and reduce blood flow, and if the calcium deposits rupture, it can cause heart attacks.

    The findings suggest that heart disease may be an unavoidable part of human aging. It's not clear how far back in evolutionary history this problem emerged: Our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, don't get atherosclerosis in the wild but do in captivity, Finch told LiveScience.

    Even if it's universal, however, that doesn't give people license to chow down on funnel cake and bacon, as ample evidence suggests modern fat- and sugar-heavy diets have worsened heart disease over the last century, Finch said.

    Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


    A history of heart disease

    CT scans of Egyptian mummies, some as much as 3,500 years old, show evidence of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which is normally thought of as a disease caused by modern lifestyles, researchers said Tuesday.

    The study, presented at the American Heart Assn. meeting in Orlando, Fla., was conceived by Dr. Gregory Thomas, a cardiologist at UC Irvine, after he read about Pharoah Merenptah at the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo.

    When he died at age 60 in 1203 BC, Merenptah was plagued by atherosclerosis, arthritis and dental decay.

    Thomas reasoned that some evidence of the atherosclerosis -- which is characterized by calcium in plaques -- might still be present. He organized a team of cardiologists and Egyptologists who scanned a series of 20 mummies in the museum during a week in February.

    Among the 16 mummies whose arteries or hearts could be identified, nine had calcification clearly seen in the arteries or in the path where the arteries should have been.

    The disease was clearly age-related: Seven of the eight mummies who were older than 45 when they died had calcification, compared with only two of eight that were younger than 45.

    Men and women were affected equally. The most ancient of the mummies afflicted with atherosclerosis was Lady Rai, who had been a nursemaid to Queen Ahmose Nefertiti. She died at the age of 30 or 40 around 1530 BC, about 300 years prior to the time of Moses and 200 years before King Tut. Other mummies that were examined died as recently as AD 364. All the mummies were of high social status.

    “We are observing the footprint of the same disease process in people who lived thousands of years ago,” said coauthor Dr. Michael I. Miyamoto, a cardiologist at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “Perhaps atherosclerosis is part of being human.”

    The study’s results may mean scientists need to look beyond modern risk factors to fully understand what causes the condition, the researchers said.

    Both groups, however, share some risk factors. The high-status Egyptians ate a diet high in meat from cattle, ducks and geese, all fatty.

    And because mechanical refrigeration was not available, salt -- another contributing factor in heart disease -- was widely used for food preservation.


    CT scans provide evidence of atherosclerosis in wide range of ancient populations

    Although atherosclerosis is widely thought to be a disease of modern times, computed tomographic (CT) evidence of atherosclerosis has been found in the bodies of a large number of mummies. In a paper published in Global Heart (the journal of the World Heart Federation) the authors review the findings of atherosclerotic calcifications in the remains of ancient people -- humans who lived across a very wide span of human history and over most of the inhabited globe.

    The paper is by Dr Randall Thompson, Saint Luke's Mid-America Heart Institute, University of Missouri-Kansas City, MO, USA, and Professor Jagat Narula, Editor-in-Chief of Global Heart and Associate Dean for Global Health at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, USA, and colleagues.

    The paper discusses a range of ancient peoples, including mummies from ancient Egypt, ancient Peru, and from the Aleutian Islands, continental North America, east Asia, and Europe, including the much studied 'Iceman'. The authors state: "These people had a wide range of diets and lifestyles and traditional modern risk factors do not thoroughly explain the presence and easy detectability of this disease. Non-traditional risk factors such as the inhalation of cooking fire smoke and chronic infection or inflammation might have been important factors contributing to atherosclerosis in ancient times. Study of the genetic and environmental risk factors for atherosclerosis in ancient people may offer insights into this common modern disease."

    The authors note that: "Many people are surprised when they learn that ancient people had atherosclerosis. There is such a large (and appropriate) public health effort to educate citizens about healthy cardiovascular lifestyle choices that many seem to conclude that the condition must be completely avoidable and completely caused by our unhealthy modern diet and factors such as cigarette smoking, trans-fats, and inactivity."

    They explain that, although atherosclerosis is widely thought to be a disease caused by modern lifestyles, CT evidence of atherosclerosis has been found in the bodies of a substantial number of mummies from various locations. Atherosclerotic calcifications, which appear virtually identical to CT findings in modern patients, have been detected in all major arteries in ancient mummies.

    The authors conclude: "These people had a wide range of diets and lifestyles, and traditional modern risk factors do not thoroughly explain the presence and easy detection of this disease. We have hypothesised that non-traditional risk factors such as the inhalation of cooking fire smoke and chronic infection or inflammation might have been important factors contributing to atherosclerosis in ancient times. Further study of the genetic and environmental risk factors for atherosclerosis in ancient people may offer insights into this common modern disease."


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