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Egyptian mummy. Credit: Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock

Mummies with Heart Disease: A Mass-Killer with Ancient Origins

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Scientists studying ancient mummies found modern heart disease is an ancient human killer.

All over the world heart disease is one of nature’s most effective devices of population control and one of the leading human killers in the Western world. Modern diets and sedentary lifestyles leading to obesity are largely blamed for the disease in modern culture but a new University of Texas study, published in the American Heart Journal, found cholesterol buildup in the arteries of five mummies dating back to 2000 BC.

While heart disease is a number one killer in the US today causing about a quarter of Americans' deaths every year, scanning the preserved arteries of ancient mummies revealed that heart disease and high cholesterol have for a long time been part of the human condition. Although processed high-fat foods leading to high-cholesterol are so often blamed for heart disease today, this new study found signs of the same kind of cholesterol-clogged arteries seen in modern humans, in the arteries of ancient mummies.

Challenging Modern Ideas

The paper’s lead author, Dr Mohammad Madjid, from the Department of Medicine, McGovern Medical School, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston in Texas says his team’s findings challenge modern ideas that if we all somehow returned to a similar whole food diet as out Neolithic ancestors, conditions such as diabetes and heart disease could be eradicated from the modern world.

Atherosclerosis is a disease which causes plaque to build up around arteries, which are themselves blood vessels carrying oxygenated blood to the heart and around the body. Plaque consists of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances floating along in the blood which over time harden and narrow the artery walls. This of course demands that the heart pumps harder to push blood through these narrowed passageways which ultimately leads to cardio-events; commonly heart attacks.

New Technologies, Innovative Approaches

Amidst an onslaught of negative press accusing less nutritious, fast and processed foods of causing heart disease, Dr Mohamad Madjid and his team set out to determine if heart disease is only a modern-day problem, but according to the Daily Mail, rather than reviewing old data collected years or even decades ago, this new team looked back further - centuries further.

Four of the test five mummies came from South America and one had Middle Eastern origins with the youngest being 18 years old at death and the oldest between 55 and 60. The scientists placed catheters in the mummified arteries and Dr Madjid explained that they “send out signals” about tissue components, each of which has its own unique signature. Previously, computed tomography detected arterial calcification which indicates later-stage atherosclerosis but in this new study “near-infrared spectroscopy” was applied which detected cholesterol-rich atherosclerotic plaques in the ancient arteries.

Poor Genes and Infections May Have Caused Cholesterol Issues

When something that kills around 610,000 people in the US alone every year, this, and any other study in the field must surely add to the public’s grasp of the facts, which so often get bogged down beneath heavy duty marketing campaigns. The authors of this new paper conclude that they are the first team to “non-invasively” detect earlier-stage lesions in mummies from different geographical areas and atherosclerosis (heart disease) has been present in humans since ancient times, at least since 2000 BC, when the oldest of the five studied mummies was wrapped. 

Even in the arteries of the 18-year-old mummy the scientists noted signs of atherosclerosis which suggested heart disease has not only been a human affliction for much of human history, but that other environmental factors cause the disease. So, Dr Madjid, if fast foods didn’t cause heart disease, what on Earth did? The doctor suspects “different triggers” for athersclerosis in the five mummies and rather than today where a lot of folk spend long days “idly and eating junk food”, Dr Madjid suspects the ubiquitous firepits, poorer genes and infections may instead have driven “cholesterol buildup” in the mummies’ arteries.

This “does not”, however, mean you can now go ahead and order a vast food delivery of barbecue ribs, corn, and fires, with soft drinks and desert, so long as you don’t hang around fire pits. Quite the opposite, what rises from this paper, like most, is that longevity is achieved through ‘balance’, and in this case the balance of “diet and exercise”, for any lack of equilibrium in one of these two key factors seems to be where Atherosclerosis thrives.

Top image: Egyptian mummy. Source: Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie



T1bbst3r's picture

Yes, and issues relating to heart problems, like dropsy were regarded as different diseases because of the lack of knowledge........
It's interesting how the article emplys that these ancient people might not have had a healthy diet though, but it doesn't compare diets, thought the mesoamerican one would have been really good.

Um, *duh*? Humans have not appreciably changed in a hundred thousand years, people have known that many times heart disease is genetically linked [hence the doctor always asking if you have a family history of a litany of genetically linked issues] so of course it would have been present historically. It simply happened that nobody really checked for physical presence of heart issues.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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