Mummies From Around the World Had Hardened Arteries

Mummies from cultures across the globe have one thing in common—plaque in their arteries

Sandy Felsenthal/CORBIS

The slow buildup in human arteries of a plaque of cholesterol, fats and other biological nasties is usually considered a product of our sedentary modern lives. But a new study published in the journal Global Heart shows that this condition, known as atherosclerosis, has been around for quite some time—mummies from Egypt to Peru all show signs of hardened arteries.

Authors Gregory Thomas and Jagat Narula said in a press release that their results could mean a new way of looking at this disease: "There is a surprising similarity in the amount and distribution of atherosclerotic calcifications between ancient Egyptians and current Americans of a similar age...even though many of what we believe to be major risk factors must be different between the two populations."

The root causes of atherosclerosis are currently considered to be smoking, diet-related conditions like high cholesterol and a lack of exercise, among others. As the authors point out, Egyptians didn't smoke tobacco, eat our less-than-ideal diet or, most likely, sit or lie around as much as we do. 

The question is then, if ancient people weren’t sitting in front of their stone tablets all day, smoking cigarettes and eating junk food, how did mummies from Egypt, Peru, Mongolia, Alaska, Colorado and Utah, all end up with the same condition? 

The authors point to a few ideas. For one, many human remains from these cultures show evidence of prolonged infections—often more than one. Human immune systems tend to respond to these types of reflections with inflammation, which can cause atherosclerosis over long periods of time. 

The authors also noticed that more women than men had the condition, leading them to speculate that, if women were doing the cooking in these cultures, more time spent near a fire could also have caused their arteries to harden. 

NPR reports, though, that the hardened arteries in the ancient remains weren’t nearly as severe as some instances of the disease today. So let’s not throw diet and exercise out the window quite yet. Quitting smoking, exercising and eating healthy foods are still good choices for your cardiovascular system.   

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