Mummies offer new evidence that heart disease is a natural result of aging and that hardening of the arteries would occur even if everyone gave up cigarettes and junk food. Researchers have scanned 137 mummies — not just from ancient Egypt but also from Peru, the American southwest, and Alaska’s Aleutian islands — with ages ranging from 3800 B.C. to 1900 A.D. One-third of the mummies tested had clogged arteries, and a mummy from a person who was older at death was more likely to have the condition than those who died young. That’s the startling evidence that was presented Sunday at the American College of Cardiology conference in San Francisco.
Lead researcher Dr. Randall Thompson of Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City said that heart disease has been killing people all over the world for over 4,000 years. He advised against people feeling guilty when they fall ill, explaining that, “We may have oversold the idea that a healthy lifestyle can completely eliminate your risk.”
Tobacco comes from a plant only native to the New World. While some of the North or South American mummies may have had access to the plant, which was used as a healing herb by native Americans, the ancient Egyptians never saw it. The first tobacco wasn’t known to the Old World until Christopher Columbus himself was offered the leaves by native Americans he met in his famous 1492 voyage.
Modern junk food didn’t really get going until the 20th century. What some historians call America’s first junk food was Cracker Jack, a mix of popcorn, molasses, and peanuts, first sold at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and perfected for sale in stores by 1896.
The new study, which was also published yesterday in medical journal The Lancet, showed that clogged arteries can come with age no matter which culture or continent you live on, no matter which diet you follow.
Dr. Thompson also wanted to address the fact that the Egyptian mummies had been artificially preserved for religious reasons, while the mummies from the Americas had been preserved naturally by the dry climates where they were discovered. In that way, he could anticipate the argument that the Egyptian arteries might look clogged because of some chemical introduced in the embalming process.
The study confirmed that there is a natural human predisposition to heart disease which could affect anyone.
However, a doctor and a nurse questioned about the study pointed out that you can still help yourself by making lifestyle changes. A senior cardiac nurse at a British hospital, Maureen Talbot, told the BBC: “We can’t change the past, but lifestyle choices can help to affect our future. By eating well, quitting smoking and keeping active, you can help to protect your heart.”
Sorry, folks, but your medical team is probably not going to accept the evidence from ancient mummies as an excuse to keep eating junk.
[photo courtesy Elaine Radford]