Atherosclerosis is often considered a problem closely tied to our modern society and lifestyle. However, a study in The Lancet now shows that it was present in many people from various ancient civilizations. The researchers put mummies inside a CT scanner to look for vascular calcifications, and early sign of atheroma formation.
They are not the first to put mummies in the CT; and nor are they the first to demonstrate calcifications in them. However, previous studies used mainly Egyptian mummies consisting of royalty or high priests exposed to fat-rich diets through their flamboyant lifestyle. In the current study, 137 mummies from Egyptian, Peruvian, Ancestral Puebloan and Unangan populations were scanned, spanning four separate geographical regions and multiple time periods. Except for the Egyptians, they had primarily agricultural backgrounds and mummification was not a privilege of the elite.
Full body CT scans were reviewed for the presence of calcification throughout the vascular system. Despite a mean estimated age at death of only 36 years, 34% of the mummies had probable or definite atherosclerosis. It was most commonly encountered in the aorta, iliac and femoral arteries and the arteries of the leg and less commonly in the coronary and carotid arteries. As expected, the prevalence of atherosclerosis increased with age, but there was no association with sex or historical time period.
This study shows that atherosclerosis is a burden that has affected humans for at least several thousand years and probably much longer. However, why it developed in our ancestors remains unknown. To get a better understanding of the disease processes involved, as a next step the researchers hope to biopsy mummies to evaluate the influence of inflammation and genetic factors.