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CT Mummy Scans Imply: Eat, Drink, Be Merry?

March 12, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Abdominal Imaging, Cardiac Imaging, Chest Radiology
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Whole-body CT scans of 137 mummies have revealed at least probable artherosclerosis in one third of the bodies, some of them more than 3,500 years old. The mummies came from four different areas of the world with different food sources and lifestyles.

That certainly suggests that it’s not modern lifestyles or diets that cause hardening of the arteries. So what does?

An article about the research, published online Monday in The Lancet, concludes with the following sentence:

The presence of atherosclerosis in premodern human beings suggests that the disease is an inherent component of human ageing and not a characteristic of any specific diet or lifestyle.

So bring on the steaks and the wine, and forget exercise, right? Not so fast, says lead author Randall C. Thompson, MD, a cardiologist at St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute and the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Medicine, both in Kansas City, Missouri. On Monday, he told NPR:

“It may be that we have less control over getting heart disease than we like to think we do, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t control the risk factors you should control. If you’ve got high blood pressure, you should have it treated. If you’ve got high cholesterol, you should control your cholesterol. But there’re certainly some diets that are healthier than others and certainly some lifestyles that are healthier than others, and we all ought to take care of ourselves.”


The researchers used 76 mummies from ancient Egypt (3100 BCE to 364 CE), 51 from Peru (200–1500 CE), 5 from the Ancestral Puebloan people of the southwestern United States (1500 BCE–1500 CE), and 5 from the Unangan people of the Aleutian Islands (1756–1930 CE). Most of the Egyptians were ritually mummified and members of the upper classes. The others were mummified naturally.

Amazingly, whole-body CT found vascular tissue and even intact hearts in mummies from as far back as 3800 BCE. The researchers used calcification as a marker for atherosclerosis. In cases where vascular tissue had disintegrated but calcification was found along the path of an artery, atherosclerosis was considered probable.

The researchers found definite atherosclerosis in 25 mummies and probable atherosclerosis in 22 more—47 of the 137 mummies altogether, or 34 percent. The disease was present in all four cultures.

Gregory S. Thomas, MD, medical director for the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in Long Beach, California, is the study’s senior author. A University of Southern California news release (via EurekAlert!) about the study quoted him as saying:

Our research shows that we are all at risk for atherosclerosis, the disease that causes heart attacks and strokes—all races, diets, and lifestyles. Because of this, we all need to be cautious of our diet, weight, and exercise to minimize its impact.

Sigh. See you at the gym.

Related seminar: Computed Body Tomography: The Cutting Edge


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