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Volume-rendered CT image demonstrating extensive atherosclerosis (arrows) in the aorta of a female mummy from ancient Peru

SCIENCE & TECH: Ancient Mummies Reveal Heart Disease Is Not Just a Modern Ailment

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Heart disease is often viewed as a modern malady, fueled by sedentary lifestyles, poor dietary habits, and the stresses of modern life. However, a groundbreaking study led by Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute challenges this idea, revealing that heart disease has been a human affliction for millennia. 

The Global HORUS Study, recently published in the European Heart Journal, has found widespread evidence of atherosclerosis—a build-up of plaque in the arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes—in ancient mummies from diverse cultures around the world. 

Uncovering Ancient Atherosclerosis 

According to the new release by Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, researchers conducted CT scans on 237 adult mummies spanning over 4,000 years and found signs of atherosclerosis in more than 37% of the cases. The mummies, hailing from seven different cultures—including ancient Egyptians, lowland Peruvians, highland Andean Bolivians, 19th-century Aleutian Islander hunter-gatherers, 16th-century Greenlandic Inuits, ancestral Puebloans, and Middle Ages Gobi Desert pastoralists—offered a unique glimpse into the health issues faced by our ancestors. 

“We found atherosclerosis in all time periods—dating before 2,500 BC—in both men and women, in all seven cultures that were studied, and in both elites and non-elites,” said Dr. Randall Thompson, lead author of the study and cardiologist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute. 

This discovery supports the idea that atherosclerosis is not solely a product of modern lifestyles but rather a condition with deep historical roots. 

Volume-rendered CT image demonstrating extensive atherosclerosis (arrows) in the aorta of a female mummy from ancient Peru. (Thompson et al. 2024/European Heart Journal) 

While the presence of heart disease in ancient populations is notable, the researchers emphasized that most cases found were consistent with early disease stages, often discovered incidentally in modern patients during routine CT scans. The mean age of the mummies at death was around 40 years old, young by today’s standards, yet indicative of the onset of cardiovascular issues. 

Dr. Thompson explained: 

“This study indicates that modern cardiovascular risk factors—such as smoking, sedentary lifestyle, and poor diet—exacerbate an underlying, inherent risk that is part of the human aging process. It is crucial to control the risk factors we can manage to mitigate the impact of heart disease.” 

Although the researchers acknowledge certain limitations of their study, such as the varying degrees of preservation among the mummies and the potential effects of the mummification process on tissue, they believe the conservative assessment methods ensured a rigorous analysis of atherosclerosis presence. 





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