CT scans of 137 mummies gathered from four cultures across three continents show that hardened arteries aren't just a modern phenomenon. Researchers determined that 47 of the mummies had "probable" or "definite" atherosclerosis.
The findings suggest that humans may have a basic predisposition to developing cardiovascular disease as they age, said Dr. Gregory Thomas, senior author of a study detailing the findings that was published in the journal Lancet.
"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," said Thomas, who is also a clinical professor of cardiology at UC Irvine. "I believed it too, until we scanned these people."
The group has published past research showing that vascular disease was common in ancient Egyptian mummies. This time, they wanted to examine the remains of people who might not have been as privileged as royals, and thus less likely to eat a high-fat diet and laze about, habits well known to be hazardous to the heart.
Experts found the calcium deposits of atherosclerosis in mummies from all four cultures, with the New World specimens having similar buildups to the Egyptians.
One Aleutian woman, approximately 50 years old, had very severe blockages of her right coronary artery -- despite the heart-healthy Aleutian diet of fish and seasonal berries.
In all, the researchers determined that 47 of the mummies had "probable" or "definite" atherosclerosis, though they couldn't tell whether the vascular disease was a cause of death.
Still, doctors warn that this doesn't mean people should abandon heathy living. Dr. Robert Gillespie, a cardiologist at Sharp HealthCare in San Diego who was not involved in the study, noted that "if you don't control the things you can, you increase your risk even higher."