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Heart Diseases Afflicted Ancient Ancestors, Mummy Study Shows

Update Date: Mar 11, 2013 11:38 AM EDT

Cardiovascular diseases plagued ancient ancestors as well according to a new study published in The Lancet. Heart diseases and complications have constantly been linked to modern day unhealthy diets sourced from oily fast foods, smoking, and lack of exercise. However, as evidence shows, heart problems have existed for centuries without these commonly perceived factors. A study co-headed by a neurobiologist from the University of South California, Caleb Finch and Dr. Gregory Thomas discovered that over 100 mummies had plaque buildup in their arteries, a huge contributing factor to heart disease.

The research team use CT scans to analyze the arteries from 137 antique mummies gathered from three continents and found that these ancient people suffered from heart complications as well. Although many people may be quick to conclude that fats from common livestock or smoking, which existed during those times as well could be behind the presence of heart disease, the research team found that some of the mummies were from areas, such as the Aleutian Islands that predominately had a healthy-heart diet consisting of marine animals and berries. Based off of this information, researchers believe that heart disease may be a predisposed condition.

The research team also found that a third of the mummies appeared to have very similar vascular blockages known to be responsible for heart attacks and strokes as the people today living in the United States. These mummies originated from the American Southwest, Alaska, Egypt, and Peru nearly 5,000 years ago. Thomas, who is the medical director of the MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and a clinical professor of cardiology at the University of California Irvine, believes that heart disease stems from a greater source than just modern day lifestyle habits.

"We want to believe that we can prevent heart disease, that we don't have to get it if we do the right things and go back to nature. I believed it too, until we scanned these people," Thomas said.

The sample set of mummified remains included 76 Egyptians from 3100 BC to AD 364, five from modern day Utah from 1500 BC to AD 1500, 51 Peruvians from 900 BC to AD 1500, and five Aleutian hunter-gatherers living during AD 1900. Although hardened arteries, atherosclerosis was commonly seen, the team stated that 47 of the 137 mummies showed significant and definite signs of atherosclerosis. The researchers could not determine whether or not the hardened arteries directly caused the deaths of these individuals.

Thomas and his research team presented these findings at the American College of Cardiology in San Francisco. The research was compiled after five years of work put in by physicians, biologists and anthropologists. Even though these findings strongly suggest that there is a predisposition for heart disease in humans, physicians who were not a part of the study, stressed that humans should still try to lower their risks for heart disease by changing diets and habits.

The team notes that even if these people did not consume the same kinds of diets, they might have experienced similar conditions such as smokes from fires, inflammations, and infections. Thus, people should still try to lower their risks despite this new idea that heart disease may be predisposed. 

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