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Lessons about disease...from mummies
March 10th, 2013
07:58 PM ET

Lessons about disease...from mummies

Talk about a startling juxtaposition: A mummy in a CT scanner. You may be wondering: Why in the world would a mummy get a CT scan?

It turns out that preserved peoples are great study subjects, especially when you are trying to figure out the roots of health problems that span millennia.

A study released Sunday in The Lancet suggests that atherosclerosis - the disease that makes arteries go rigid, and is a leading cause of death worldwide - may have been around for thousands of years.

"We like to say that we found the serial killer that's stalked mankind for 4,000 years," said Dr. Randall Thompson, attending cardiologist at Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute, and lead author of the study.

The proof lies under the fine linen folds of mummies from ancient Egypt and Peru, the southwestern United States, and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Scientists scanned 137 of them and found that more than one-third had definite or probable atherosclerosis.

Twenty-five of the 47 mummies had "definite disease," according to the study, while the other 22 had probable disease.  And evidence of atherosclerosis was found in mummies representing all four geographic areas.

"It is intriguing," said Dr. Richard Becker, professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study. "One could look at this and say this is not solely a disease of westernized civilizations. Atherosclerosis perhaps has been around for a long time."

Glowing white flecks of what appeared to be calcium showed up in the same places on CT scans - the aorta and the coronary and carotid arteries, for example - where it is found in people today. (Turns out that calcium does not decay; it stays lodged in the body for thousands of years.)

"These populations...had very different diets, very different lifestyles," said Thompson. "And there was a very wide span of history and wide geographic distribution. The disease was present and not hard to find."

That geographic and lifestyle diversity is key to this study.

Previously, Thompson and his colleagues found evidence of atherosclerosis in Egyptian mummies. The findings suggested that our modern, unhealthy lifestyle may not deserve full blame for atherosclerosis - after all, even ancient Egyptians had the disease.

"But after we reported our findings in ancient Egyptians we were criticized," said Thompson. "They were eating a diet that was rather rich and did not get much physical activity. They lived a lifestyle like ours, so it was not so surprising after all."

This most recent study found atherosclerosis in populations that subsisted on things like corn, squash, nuts, berries and fish - and were active - so our unhealthy, modern habits may play a lesser role in developing this disease than we think.

When the current crop of mummies was subjected to further analysis, calcium build up seemed to happen as a function of age, not diet and physical activity. But that does not mean that we modern people should ignore those other risk factors for atherosclerosis.

"If you have less control than you think you do, that's more reason to control what you can, like cholesterol, exercise and do things we know are healthy," said Thompson.

The problem, according to Thompson, is when patients feel weighed down by guilt because they can't control their diabetes or exercise enough.

"Some of that guilt is misplaced," said Thompson. "I think that some of the excessive focus on diet is oversold."


soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. Patricia Kraybill

    I'm still trying to get am MRI for my painful back.This mummy must have a good insurance provider.

    March 11, 2013 at 06:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sam Crow

      Wow, that is funny. Hey, obamacare will take care of it......

      March 11, 2013 at 08:24 | Report abuse |
    • John Farmer

      If you have been paying an insurance provider for 4,000 years, you would get great service as well.

      March 11, 2013 at 15:34 | Report abuse |
    • Deb

      Question? would not the process of mummification cause a similar affect on the arteries? Unless you found the plaque build up within them, couldn't their state be attributed to after death embalming?

      March 18, 2013 at 15:27 | Report abuse |
  2. mememememememe

    typo – "Twenty-five of the 47 mummies...." should read "Twenty-five of the 137 mummies...."

    March 11, 2013 at 08:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Matt

      No, it's not a typo. Perhaps poorly written, but not a typo. 47 of the 137 mummies showed definite or probable disease. 25 of 47 had "definite" disease while the other 22 had "probable" disease.

      March 11, 2013 at 10:21 | Report abuse |
  3. Sam Crow

    The Dr. that did my dads bypass said you can control 8-10% of the cause. The other 90% is genetics, so I am screwed. Even if I followed the best diets, did everything healthy, i will have artery issues. Same goes to anyone else with bad genes like me.

    March 11, 2013 at 08:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Steve

      Looks like we are all in for it, since we everyonbe generated from Adam and Eve anyway!!

      March 11, 2013 at 11:45 | Report abuse |
    • phred

      Did your mother have the same problem? You have no guarantee that you inherited those genes from your father. Even if both parents had those genes, I don't think it is established if they follow a simple Mendelian ineritance or not, so you STILL may not have those genes.

      March 11, 2013 at 11:46 | Report abuse |
  4. Seb

    25 out of 47 is about the 1/3rd of the 137..... Duh.

    25 had disease, 22 had probable disease. 25+22 =47
    They say more than 1/3rd .... 47 is more than 1/3rd of 137.

    No typo, you read wrong.

    March 11, 2013 at 08:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Guest

    "peoples"? Excellent use of grammar! It is people not peoples! The quality of the editing is shocking!

    March 11, 2013 at 08:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • B. C.

      Yes, "peoples" as in "populations". The Egyptian people (=population) and the Peruvian people (=population) were quite different peoples.

      March 11, 2013 at 11:23 | Report abuse |
    • Rex Slate

      Actually there is a plural form of people, as in peoples. This article speaks of mummies from four separate peoples: The people of Egypt, the people of Peru, the people from the southwestern United States, and the people from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Since there are four distinct groups of people being emphasized in this article, the use of the plural form of people is appropriate, especially considering that this study's validity is based upon this diversity.

      March 11, 2013 at 11:27 | Report abuse |
    • DEEDEE

      Oh, I see the word police is out again! Big freaking deal, get a life.

      March 11, 2013 at 11:37 | Report abuse |
  6. jimmy

    Looks like that one was in the oven too long.

    March 11, 2013 at 08:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Claire

    Guest, "peoples" is correct. It's not used often, and it has a slight difference in meaning - usually, when referring to different cultures.

    March 11, 2013 at 09:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Snotty

    Peoples is perfectly correct. (Merriam Webster, definition #5). But I fully understand that the plural of the word is hard to grasp for a nation that obliterated an ethnic group that was already on that continent. Plural of people, nah we don't want that. We, the people, all want to be fat, watch ball games and drink Coca Cola and speak our specific version of English with deranged phonemes. Other people can't be people.

    March 11, 2013 at 09:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. palintwit

    X-rays have revealed that this mummy only has one tooth which makes it a mummified teabagger.

    March 11, 2013 at 10:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Woody

    If more people donated their bodies to science we could learn too but many believe that is taboo . How can people learn if we have no bodies to learn from . I have no problem donating my body to science when I am gone . It does no good but food for the worms if not . And no there is no guarantee that your body will not be moved after burial . Just like the mummy in the scanner we could all be dug back up some day . We are the human mammal nothing more nothing less ! Type in the human mammal at your favorite search engine . Thats how we all learn today !

    March 11, 2013 at 10:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Leucadia Bob

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9E3eY94Gu0k&w=640&h=390]

    March 11, 2013 at 10:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. nathankent66

    I wonder why they over focused on the role calcium while ignoring the key role of cholesterol. From where I stand, the root cause of atherosclerosis is obviously cholesterol. In fact, when calcium in your body is so high, it just slightly affects your arteries but not at the same way cholesterol does.

    March 11, 2013 at 10:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Joe Smith

      How about because calcium doesn't decompose over time like cholesterol does? They can only focus on what's there now, when they do the scans.

      March 11, 2013 at 11:32 | Report abuse |
  13. Paul

    As someone who did a research paper on this exact topic with regards to both the disease and the mummies, there is one glaring oversight in this piece. Those that were mummified in the past generally were the 1% of their time and had access to a diet that included meat, whereas most of the peasant class were forced to eat a vegetarian diet.

    Our modern MEAT eating diet may indeed play a role and the meat eating mummies may thank the cholesterol and fats from their diet. You are not "screwed" by your genes. Read Dr. Esselstyn's book Reversing Heart Disease to see there is plenty of evidence out there that you can in fact clear your arteries and avoid this disease by diet alone.

    March 11, 2013 at 10:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. john reed davis

    why isn't this type of archeology considered tomb or grave robbing? When will it be OK to unearth caskets at any cemetery?

    March 11, 2013 at 10:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • bob

      finally someone said it... grave robbers

      March 11, 2013 at 11:27 | Report abuse |
  15. john reed davis

    Are the conclusions of this study serious?

    "If you have less control than you think you do, that's more reason to control what you can, like cholesterol, exercise and do things we know are healthy," said Thompson."

    If taxpayer money was used for this study and others like it, this should be consider as part of the federal budget cuts.

    March 11, 2013 at 11:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. seth hill

    mummies can also teach us the secrets to eternal life, as saeen in at least a daozen popular movies...

    March 11, 2013 at 11:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Sean250

    If the mummies had laid off the Big Macs and Whoppers, they wouldn't have had artery problems...

    March 11, 2013 at 11:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. jon

    What other kinds of diseases did they discover that were common in their deaths back then? Was there any cancer discovered in any of the bodies back then? Or is cancer caused by more modern processed foods and chemicals? I think that would be a good study to see if our modern habits are responsible for so many health problems today.

    March 11, 2013 at 11:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LCC

      Jon-

      You don't have to look back thousands of years to see population studies and cancer. Only a century or two ago, many isolated populations had 0 incidents of cancer (breast and others), heart disease and diabetes. After the introduction of Western diet (including sugar, flour), it only took a couple of decades for cancer to start cropping up. Within a generation or two, these previously isolated cultures were now on par with the rest of the Western population.

      March 11, 2013 at 17:04 | Report abuse |
    • JNC

      No, cancer is a very old disease actually. Paleontologists claim that cancer existed in dinosaurs. The reason you didn't hear much about it in history is because 1) they didn't know what it was when people had it, 2) people didn't live long enough and rather died of infectious disease (cancer is associated with age).

      March 26, 2013 at 15:13 | Report abuse |
  19. palintwit

    If the toothbrush had been invented north of the Mason-Dixon line it would have been called a ' teethbrush '.

    March 11, 2013 at 12:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Karl

    I'm surprised the article did not discuss the connection between gum health (periodontal disease) and heart disease. Certain disease-causing bacteria in the mouth enter through the gums in people with poor oral health, causing inflammation which narrows blood vessels. These mouth bacteria have been found in artery plaques. Flossing can extend life by years.

    March 11, 2013 at 12:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. OutOfPlace

    What about that story that Amber Lyon exposed CNN?

    March 11, 2013 at 14:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. LCC

    The main staple of the Egyptian diet was breads and cereal foods. They also ate high sugar foods such as grapes, dates, figs and honey. Their diet is probably fairly similar to the one the USDA now recommends, high in carbohydrate. No wonder there was such a high incidence of heart disease.

    March 11, 2013 at 17:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. David

    I always thought the number one health message from mummies was don't have your brain extracted through your nose and your internal organs stuffed in jars.

    March 11, 2013 at 20:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Carlos

    That's a Tamale not a mummy. End of Story.

    April 1, 2013 at 09:50 | Report abuse | Reply
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    July 1, 2013 at 02:27 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Vegetarianism can be adopted for different reasons. Many object to eating meat out of respect for sentient life. Such ethical motivations have been codified under various religious beliefs, along with the concept of animal rights. Other motivations for vegetarianism are health-related, political, environmental, cultural, aesthetic or economic.'.,^

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.