News Column

Mummies Display Signs of Heart Disease

March 11, 2013

John Fauber

Modern humans can blame it on TV, computers, fast food and cigarettes.

But 4,000-year-old mummies, what's their excuse?

Why is it that signs of heart disease were found in 34% of mummies from Egypt, Peru and North America?

That finding was presented here by researchers who used whole-body CT scans to look for calcium buildup, a sign of heart disease, in the arteries of 137 mummies.

"We were surprised too," said researcher L. Samuel Wann, a cardiologist at Columbia St. Mary's Health Care in Milwaukee. "It's a complicated question."

The simple answer is that while much of heart disease can be explained by traditional risk factors such as diet, smoking, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, much of it also is due to other factors such as aging, genetics, stress and inflammation.

Wann and a small group of cardiologists and other experts began seriously researching the issue about five years ago when they formed the Paleocardiology Foundation. On Sunday, more of their findings were presented at the American College of Cardiology meeting here.

"Heart disease is a serial killer that has been stalking mankind for 4,000 years," said Randall Thompson, lead author of the research and a professor of medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine.

Expanded study

Earlier research by the group involved only mummies from Egypt. The new findings involve Egyptian mummies as well as corn and potato farmers who lived in Peru between 600 B.C. and 1500 A.D., Puebloans from the southwest U.S. who lived as far back as 1500 B.C., and Aleutian Island mummies from the 19th century.

One of the most surprising findings was the presence of artery disease in traditional hunter-gatherers, who long have been thought to have lifestyles, including a varied diet and a lot of exercise, that protected them from heart disease.

For instance, advanced artery disease was found among the Aleutians who, even in 1900, hunted seals, fished and gathered berries and sea urchins. Marine-based diets are loaded with heart-healthy omega-3 fats.

"That's probably the biggest paradox," Wann said.

One clue: They lived in subterranean houses and may have been exposed to a great deal of smoke within those structures.

Among the much older Egyptian mummies, there is a different possible explanation for why so much heart disease was found: Even 4,000 years ago Egyptians were living in an agricultural society, which among the elites probably meant eating a lot of saturated fat-loaded meats and may not have required a lot of exercise, Wann said.

"They didn't mummify the guy who built the pyramid," he said. "They mummified the guy who owned it."

And, while cigarette smoking did not exist, ancient Egyptians and others may have lived in smoke-filled dwellings that led to inflammation in their arteries, he said.

For decades, doctors have known that atherosclerosis could be found in modern humans even at relatively young ages. Autopsies done on British soldiers who fought in the Crimean War and young American men who fought in the Korean War showed plaque buildup in the arteries of the heart, even in 20-year-olds.

But the unanswered question was, when did artery disease become a common human condition, and is it just a disease of lifestyle?

The mummy findings are causing doctors to rethink some of their assumptions about heart disease risk factors, said John Harold, a clinical professor of medicine with Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles.

While diet plays a role, maybe it is not as big a factor as thought.

The researchers said they planned to continue their quest by looking for more mummies from hunter-gatherer cultures to scan, and also for tissue samples to check for genes that may predispose someone to heart disease.

Their research paper, which is being published in the Lancet, noted that between 1800 and 2000, human life expectancy doubled. During that time, artery disease replaced infectious disease as the leading cause of death in the developed world.

The research shows that there seems to be something about human physiology that promotes heart disease, said Michael Cinquegrani, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Froedtert Hospital. Cinquegrani was not involved in the mummy research.

It also connects us to our ancient ancestors, he added.

As a species, humans evolved from hunter-gatherers to societies with less active lifestyles based on agriculture and the consumption of meat, he said.

But modern medicine also found ways to treat and prevent heart disease and, in the process, extend human life expectancy.

"In a way, what we've done is adapt to the presence of the disease," he said. "We've shown our adaptability."



Source: (c)2013 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Distributed by MCT Information Services.