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ACC 2013: CT scans of mummies debunk heart disease myths

by Carol Ko , Staff Writer
Scientists may have to rethink their views on risk factors for heart disease thanks to an unlikely source: ancient mummies.

Researchers who studied CT scans of mummies from four different parts of the world found that hardening of the arteries, an important sign of heart disease, was common among ancient people long before the advent of Big Macs.

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Overall, the team found signs of atherosclerosis in 35 percent of the mummies they studied.

The findings, presented on Sunday at the American College of Cardiology Scientific Sessions and published in the medical journal Lancet, were especially significant because researchers studied mummies from a wide variety of geographies, lifestyles and diets.

The team conducted a study in 2011 that found hardened arteries in Egyptian mummies, but since Egyptian elites were probably sedentary and ate a diet high in fat it was difficult to make general observations based on this evidence alone.

For its expanded study the team studied 137 mummies including Egyptians, Peruvians, Aleutian Islanders and ancestors of the Pueblo people in the American Southwest. Diets ranged widely from group to group. For example the Peruvians grew corn, potatoes and beans while Aleutian Islanders ate sea urchins, seals, otters and whales.

With these findings researchers now say that the underlying cause of heart disease may depend less on diet and lifestyle than previously thought.

"This disease is an inherent part of human aging," said Dr. Randall Thompson, Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, who led the study.

Most surprisingly the study found hardened arteries in three of the five mummies from the Aleutian Islands who lived as hunter gatherers — a group whose varied diet and high daily level of exercise would lower their risk of artery disease, conventional logic would suggest.

"Much of what we think we know is wrong," said Dr. L. Samuel Wann, study author and director of cardiology at the Wisconsin Heart Hospital in Milwaukee.

So do these findings give us license to smoke, drink alcohol and indulge in fried foods without fear? Alas, study authors say no. "This is all the more reason for patients today to address the factors they can control," Thompson said.

When pressed about plans for further research, Wann said, "This has already gone in directions we didn't predict. I think we'll do some more imaging from more populations. Beyond imaging there are other modes of investigation that we're going to adapt."

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