Heart disease is often considered a modern disease. But while this problem kills more people today than ever before, CT scans of ancient mummies show that even 5,000 years ago, hardening of the arteries was already a widespread affliction.
“(Heart disease) is not a disease only of modern circumstance but a basic feature of human aging in all populations,” says researcher Caleb Finch of the University of Southern California Davis.
“Turns out even a Bronze Age guy from 5,000 years ago had calcified, carotid arteries,” Finch said, referring to Otzi the Iceman, a natural mummy who lived around 3200 B.C. and was discovered frozen in a glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991.
The researchers performed CT scans of 137 mummies from across four continents and found artery plaque in every single population studied, from pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers in the Aleutian Islands to the ancient Puebloans of southwestern United States.
Overall, the researchers found probable or definite atherosclerosis in 34 percent of the mummies studied, with calcification of arteries more pronounced in the mummies that were older at time of death. Atherosclerosis was equally common in mummies identified as male or female.
“We found that heart disease is a serial killer that has been stalking mankind for thousands of years,” says researcher Gregory Thomas. “In the last century, atherosclerotic vascular disease has replaced infectious disease as the leading cause of death across the developed world. A common assumption is that the rise in levels of atherosclerosis is predominantly lifestyle-related, and that if modern humans could emulate pre-industrial or even pre-agricultural lifestyles, that atherosclerosis, or at least its clinical manifestations, would be avoided. Our findings seem to cast doubt on that assumption, and at the very least, we think they suggest that our understanding of the causes of atherosclerosis is incomplete, and that it might be somehow inherent to the process of human aging.”