Suddenly, everybody’s talking about CT scans of ancient mummies. Well, maybe not everybody. But the journal Global Heart, published by the World Heart Federation, devoted most of its June issue to, as the title of the Editor’s Page article put it, “What Do Mummies Tell Us About Atherosclerosis?” NPR’s health blog, Shots, also weighed in last week.
It’s not news that CT scans have revealed signs of atherosclerosis in mummies from a variety of ancient civilizations. Smoking, unhealthy diets, and sedentary modern lifestyles often get the blame for the condition these days. But why were ancient peoples, despite their vastly different cultures and living conditions, so universally prone to it? And what message does that have for us today?
Well, a Global Heart article titled “Why Did Ancient People Have Atherosclerosis?” says the message is this:
Humans have an inherent genetic susceptibility to atherosclerosis.
Today, gobbling junk food, vegetating on the couch, and smoking get the blame for turning that susceptibility into reality. For the ancients, the article suggests, triggering factors were inflammation brought on by dirty living conditions and smoke from a different source: ubiquitous, continuous fires. That, said Gregory S. Thomas, MD, senior author of the article, probably explains why female mummies show more evidence of atherosclerosis than male mummies. “In each of the cultures we studied, the women were cooking,” he said. Ancient people also used fire to keep warm and shoo away insects. “So,” Dr. Thomas said, “they were exposed to a lot of smoke.”
So where does that leave us? “As humans, our genes result in our susceptibility,” the Global Heart article concludes. “Our environment and the choices we make within it determine its speed and severity.” In other words, yeah, we’re probably going to get atherosclerosis if we live long enough, but in order to minimize its effects, we should avoid smoking, eat healthily, and exercise. Again, not news, but a good reminder.
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