Thursday, March 12, 2015

Atherosclerosis in Ancient Mummies Revisited

Many of you are already aware of the recent study that examined atherosclerosis in 137 ancient mummies from four different cultures (1).  Investigators used computed tomography (CT; a form of X-ray) to examine artery calcification in mummies from ancient Egypt, Peru, Puebloans, and arctic Unangan hunter-gatherers.  Artery calcification is the accumulation of calcium in the vessel wall, and it is a marker of severe atherosclerosis.  Where there is calcification, the artery wall is thickened and extensively damaged.  Not surprisingly, this is a risk factor for heart attack.  Pockets of calcification are typical as people age.

I'm not going to re-hash the paper in detail because that has been done elsewhere.  However, I do want to make a few key points about the study and its interpretation.  First, all groups had atherosclerosis to a similar degree, and it increased with advancing age.  This suggests that atherosclerosis may be part of the human condition, and not a modern disease.  Although it's interesting to have this confirmed in ancient mummies, we already knew this from cardiac autopsy data in a variety of non-industrial cultures (2, 3, 4, 5).
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