Atherosclerosis in Mummies

Posted On 2013-03-19 14:06:46
Atherosclerosis burden is thought to be related to contemporary lifestyles. A recent paper published in The Lancet described data obtained with whole body CT scans of 137 mummies from four different geographical regions or populations spanning more than 4000 years. Individuals from ancient Egypt, ancient Peru, the Ancestral Puebloans of southwest America, and the Unangan of the Aleutian Islands were imaged. Atherosclerosis was regarded as definite if a calcified plaque was seen in the wall of an artery and probable if calcifications were seen along the expected course of an artery. The data extends prior observation from these investigators in 52 ancient Egyptian mummies from the Middle Kingdom to the Greco-Roman period.

In the current study, probable or definite atherosclerosis was noted in 47 (34%) of 137 mummies from all four geographical populations: 29 (38%) of 76 ancient Egyptians, 13 (25%) of 51 ancient Peruvians, two (40%) of five Ancestral Puebloans, and three (60%) of five Unangan hunter gatherers (p=NS). Atherosclerosis was present in the aorta in 28 (20%) mummies, iliac or femoral arteries in 25 (18%), popliteal or tibial arteries in 25 (18%), carotid arteries in 17 (12%), and coronary arteries in six (4%). Of the five vascular beds examined, atherosclerosis was present in one to two beds in 34 (25%) mummies, in three to four beds in 11 (8%), and in all five vascular beds in two (1%). Age at time of death was positively correlated with atherosclerosis (mean age at death was 43 [SD 10] years for mummies with atherosclerosis vs 32 [15] years for those without; p<0.0001) and with the number of arterial beds involved (mean age was 32 [SD 15] years for mummies with no atherosclerosis, 42 [10] years for those with atherosclerosis in one or two beds, and 44 [8] years for those with atherosclerosis in three to five beds; p<0.0001).

The authors conclude that atherosclerosis was common in four preindustrial populations including preagricultural hunter-gatherers. The authors discuss that while commonly assumed to be a modern disease, the presence of atherosclerosis in premodern human beings raises the possibility of a more basic predisposition to the disease.

1. Thompson RC,  Allam AH, Lombardi GP, et al. Atherosclerosis across 4000 years of human history: the Horus study of four ancient populations. The Lancet, Early Online Publication, 11 March 2013
doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)60598-XCite or Link Using DOI

2. Allam AH, Thompson RC, Wann LS, et al. Atherosclerosis in Ancient Egyptian Mummies the Horus Study. JACC Cardiovasc Imaging. 2011; 4(4):315-327.