(Kansas City, MO – Sunday, March 10, 2013)
Don’t stop exercising or dieting just because a recent study reveals that atherosclerosis – a hardening and narrowing of the arteries – may have been much more common among ancient peoples than previously thought.
This is according to Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute cardiologist Randall Thompson, M.D. and his team of international researchers who published their findings in the prestigious journal The Lancet, and presented them at the American College of Cardiology Scientific Session conference in San Francisco.
Atherosclerosis – the disease that causes heart attacks and strokes – is usually considered to be a disease of modern human beings, related to contemporary risk factors such as smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise. Dr. Thompson’s research suggests, however, that heart disease may be mankind’s oldest health nemesis.
“In a previous study, we discovered heart disease in mummies as old as Moses. Now we can say we have found heart disease as old as Abraham,” said Dr. Thompson.
His team’s most recent findings also discovered that heart disease may have been more common across cultures and across disparate global regions.
An international group of researchers, including a paleopathologist, Egyptologists and an expert on aging, used CT scans to look for the characteristic signs of atherosclerosis in 137 mummies from ancient Egypt, Peru, Southwest America, and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. In mummies where arterial structure had survived, the researchers were able to attribute a definite case of atherosclerosis where they found signs of vascular calcification. In other cases, though the arteries had not survived the mummification process, calcified plaque could still be seen, which the researchers attributed to a probable case of atherosclerosis.
“The fact that we found similar levels of atherosclerosis in all of the different cultures we studied, all of whom had very different lifestyles and diets, suggests that atherosclerosis may have been far more common in the ancient world than previously thought, and not unique to an elite group of people selected for mummification in ancient Egypt,” Dr. Thompson said.
In 2010, Thompson’s Horus Study released initial findings of atherosclerosis after performing CT scans on mummies found in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo, Egypt. Some of the mummies used in their research dated back 3500 years and had been found in tombs and pyramids.
“Looking at their scans, you could see calcium deposits on artery walls and along the course where the arteries should be,” Thompson said. “When you see calcium build up, it’s a sign of heart disease, the same red flags we see in our patients today.”
Their study caused quite a stir among the medical community and even caught the attention of the mainstream press, including David Letterman. However, the team also had its detractors.
“After the release of our first paper, we had critiques stating that the research was skewed because mummified Egyptians represented the wealthier class. They ate fattier, richer foods than the working class,” said Dr. Thompson.
Since 2010, Thompson’s international team expanded their research to include thousand year-old Peruvian mummies, Ancient Puebloan mummies (a.d. 400-700) and Aleutians mummified as recently as the 1860s.
“We widened the net and still found heart disease – even in the hunter-gatherer societies,” Dr. Thompson said.
Dr. Thompson also says his research is beginning to cast doubt that atherosclerosis is lifestyle related and questions the common assumption that humans must emulate pre-industrial or even pre-agricultural lifestyles in order to avoid heart disease.
“Our understanding of the causes of atherosclerosis is incomplete, and instead may be somehow inherent to the process of human aging,” admits Dr. Thompson.Watch this:In May 2010, KCPT’s Senior Producer/Writer Pam James went to Cairo with the Horus Study team to document their second attempt to CT scan fifty mummies in one week. (Approx. 10 minutes into The Local Show.)