The latest analysis of ancient vessels shows that plaques have long been a global — and common problem.
Although atherosclerosis is linked to many of our modern-day habits — from our fat-laden diets to our sedentary lifestyles — a study documenting hardened arteries among ancient mummies suggests that factors other than what we eat and how much we exercise may be contributing to the buildup of plaque in blood vessels.
Researchers took CT scans of 137 mummies from several locations including Egypt, Peru, southwest America and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Reporting in the journal Lancet, they found that over a third of the mummies had signs of likely or definite hardened arteries, and even in cases where the vessels themselves had disintegrated, the unmistakable remnants of calcified plaques that maintained the shape of these vessels remained. They found that age and time of death was positively correlated with the extent of the atherosclerosis; the older the mummy, the more likely that plaques were present.
Previous studies had shown similar findings, but the mummies in those analyses had enjoyed relatively high socioeconomic status and were therefore more likely to eat richer diets high in saturated fat. The current study included a more diverse population of mummies, so the evidence of disease strongly indicates that lifestyle and diet may explain only part of the more complicated process of atherosclerosis. While those from the Aleutian Islands likely ate diets high in animal fats, including blubber from whales and seals, people from Peru and the Americas probably ate a more plant-based diet that tends to lower risk of atherosclerosis.
In a statement, study author Randall Thompson of Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute explained:
“We found that heart disease is a serial killer that has been stalking mankind for thousands of years. In the last century, atherosclerotic vascular disease has replaced infectious disease as the leading cause of death across the developed world. A common assumption is that the rise in levels of atherosclerosis is predominantly lifestyle-related, and that if modern humans could emulate pre-industrial or even pre-agricultural lifestyles, that atherosclerosis, or at least its clinical manifestations, would be avoided. Our findings seem to cast doubt on that assumption, and at the very least, we think they suggest that our understanding of the causes of atherosclerosis is incomplete, and that it might be somehow inherent to the process of human aging.”
In other words, a certain amount of plaque buildup may be an inevitable part of the human condition and reflect the gradual drop in efficiency of the body’s ability to break down and process fats. That would support some of the previous studies on atherosclerosis found in mummies, which led researchers to argue that since ancient Egyptians ate a healthier diet and were generally more active than modern man, they might simply be predisposed to developing clogged arteries.
While it’s not clear how much of this inherent tendency to develop plaques might be responsible for atherosclerosis, what is clear is that the current understanding is incomplete, and more studies will be needed to complete the picture. Thompson and his colleagues plan to biopsy the mummies to gain better insight into how factors such as chronic infection, genetics or inflammation play a role in developing atherosclerosis.
PHOTOS: Mummies from Around the World
We have evidence of hunter-gatherer/nomadic tribes that exhibit almost no signs of artery hardening. Yet, the Egyptians had it. For most, they were probably pretty physically active (at least, in the working/walking sense). What this really shows is that the Egyptians did not have healthy diets. Well, actually — their diets would probably be considered today by the mainstream nutrition advice. They had lots of whole, unprocessed, heart healthy grains — probably limited meat intake, physical/manual labor, and still had heart disease. That sounds about like what we have today…
WOW what a cool article. It is scary to see this kind of research carried out thousands of years ago. It just shows you that fitness and health is really important.
Nature sets the upper limit which anyone can reach. Environment and nurture determine how close is one’s achievement to that limit. Similarly, nature determines what kind of physical deterioration due to inevitable aging would end life but environment and life-style determine how soon that expiry date should be. We can only maximize what nature allows but we cannot overrule its predetermination. These are facts whether we like them or not.
“Previous studies had shown similar findings, but the mummies in those analyses had enjoyed relatively high socioeconomic status, and were therefore more likely to eat richer diets high in saturated fat.”
How were these “mummies” analyzed? No mummy has ever “enjoyed a relatively high socioeconomic status” nor eaten “richer diets high in saturated fats.” Mummies are, by definition, dead people.
What is article doesn’t mention is in what populations they found the atherosclerosis. Did the Alaskan mummies have more or less atherosclerosis? Also, like simonicx noted, there hasn’t been much talk yet about a likely correlation between grain consumption and the development of heart disease. Further, there is a lack of solid evidence to back up the assumption that saturated fats are bad. Ancel Keys – the father of the lipid hypothesis – is well known to have cherry-picked his data.
“which led researchers to argue that since ancient Egyptians ate a healthier diet and were generally more active than modern man, they might simply be predisposed to developing clogged arteries” – This is based on the assumption that the Egyptians did have a healthier diet, when in fact their diet significantly deviated from the diets of hunter gathers who comprised of thousands of generations of people before them, and a diet we are far more likely adapted to. From my understanding the ancient Egyptians were a fairly unhealthy group of people, with issues of diabetes, tooth decay, and obesity in greater amounts than other, less agricultural peoples.
Hardened arteries have been stalking mankind for ages? I’m quite surprised that they make zero mention of grains in the diet. Grains play a definite role in hardening of arteries, and inflammation. Stating that the rich had issues because they most likely ate more saturated fat (as if that’s a bad thing for you) would have been all well and good until they realized that even the non rich had similar issues. Arguably, many of the low-class/peasants would eat diets high in grains — along with the rich eating grains with their meat.
I can’t wait for the day when science finally turns its gaze upon grains, and finds the true “stalker” of humanity since the advent of agriculture. Grains have been killing mankind for over a millennia.
@simonicx I’d bet my life savings that you’ll reject this–“conventional science” and all–but here’s what the Mayo Clinic says: Grains, especially whole grains, are an essential part of a healthy diet. All types of grains are good sources of complex carbohydrates and some key vitamins and minerals. Grains are also naturally low in fat. All of this makes grains a healthy option. Better yet, they’ve been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and other health problems.
Good luck with your Paleo (or whatever) diet. You’ll need it.
@DarioL Sorry about your life savings (though, feel free to send it my way to pay for my “assured” medical bills…but at least it won’t be obesity/diabetes related) — I do reject that “conventional science.” As has been mentioned in various other places — for most people a slice of whole grain bread will raise your insulin levels more than a Snickers bar. Or, the fact that out of all the nutrients on this earth the one that is not necessary for the human species is dietary carbohydrates. There is absolutely nothing essential about whole grains, zero. Nor is it anywhere near “essential” for a “healthy” diet. Also, name one “key vitamin and minerals” that can only be obtained via grains…that’s right — not one. So, the only reason to eat whole grains is to provide…carbohydrates, oh right — complex carbohydrates.
I seriously think people have failed to realize what the point of human body fat is for. Further, they eat a diet that not only restricts the use of their stored energy, but promotes it even further. “Healthy” grains or not — if you consume the recommended 300g of carbohydrates a day, and your glycogen stores are filled…what happens to those carbohydrates? Sure, some might go to use for your current energy consumption, but you’re still left with a surplus. With all the glucose now in your blood, insulin rushes in and essentially stores the excess as fat. Which, might be fine if we ever allowed our bodies to access our fat stores for any extended length of time, but the moment we have another high carb meal ushers in another insulin spike/flow to shut down access to the fat stores again.
You can die without fat. You can die without protein. You will not die without dietary carbohydrates. Your body can convert protein into glucose as necessary (ie. brain function).
…I didn’t even touch on the whole grains effect on hardening of arteries subject.