March 11, 2013 (San Francisco) -- Hardening of the arteries may not be such a modern problem after all.
Scans of mummies from four geographical regions across a period of 4,000 years suggest that atherosclerosis was more common in ancient populations than previously believed.
Studying people from ancient Egypt, ancient Peru, ancestral Puebloans of Southwestern America, and hunter-gatherers from the Aleutian Islands, researchers were able to identify atherosclerosis in more than one-third of the mummified specimens. This raises the possibility that humans have a natural predisposition to the disease.
"Our findings greatly increase the number of ancient people known to have atherosclerosis and show for the first time that the disease was common in several ancient cultures with varying lifestyles, diets, and genetics, across a wide geographical distance and over a very long span of human history," according to the researchers. "These findings suggest that our understanding of the causative factors of atherosclerosis is incomplete and that atherosclerosis could be inherent to the process of human aging."
The study is published in the Lancet to coincide with a presentation here at the American College of Cardiology 2013 Scientific Sessions.
Not Just Diet or Lifestyle
Researcher Randall Thompson, MD, of the University of Missouri Kansas City School of Medicine, previously did a study showing that heart disease was evident in 3,500-year-old Egyptian mummies.
Thompson's new study is unique in that it looks at atherosclerosis across four different ancient populations from different geographical regions. The ancient Egyptians and Peruvians were farmers, the ancestral Puebloans were forager-farmers, and the Unangans of the Aleutian Islands were hunter-gatherers without agriculture. None of the cultures was known to be vegetarian, and all were believed to be quite physically active.
"The diets of these peoples were quite disparate, as were the climates," according to Randall and colleagues. "Indigenous food plants varied greatly over the wide geographical distance between these regions of the world. Fish and game were present in all of the cultures, but protein sources varied from domesticated cattle among the Egyptians to an almost entirely marine diet among the Unangans."
In total, scans were performed on 137 mummies. Probable or definite atherosclerosis was seen in 34% of the mummies, as defined by calcified plaque in the wall of the artery. Their average age of death was 43.
"In conclusion, atherosclerosis was common in four preindustrial populations, including a pre-agricultural hunter-gather population, and across a wide span of human history," they write. "It remains prevalent in contemporary human beings. The presence of atherosclerosis in pre-modern human beings suggests that the disease is an inherent component of human aging and not associated with any specific diet or lifestyle."
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