Atherosclerosis: not just a disease of the modern age?

As life expectancy doubled between 1800 and 2000, atherosclerosis replaced infectious diseases as the main cause of death in the developed world. But is atherosclerosis a purely modern phenomenon, precipitated by lifestyle changes and an ageing population, or was it common in ancient societies too?

Thompson et al. performed whole-body CT scans on 137 mummies from four different geographical areas to look for calcification and therefore atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis was present in the aorta in 28 (20%) mummies, iliac or femoral arteries in 25 (18%), popliteal or tibial arteries in 25 (18%), carotid arteries in 17 (12%), and coronary arteries in six (4%). Of the five vascular beds examined, atherosclerosis was present in one to two beds in 34 (25%) mummies, in three to four beds in 11 (8%), and in all five vascular beds in two (1%). Of note the age at the time of death was positively correlated with atherosclerosis (mean age at death 43 years for mummies with atherosclerosis vs 32 years for those without; p<0·0001) and with the number of arterial beds involved (p<0·0001).

Conclusions:

This unique study performed CT imaging of mummies from different geographical regions and found that atherosclerosis was common in four ancient populations, and therefore challenges the assumption that it is a largely modern disease.

  • Thompson RC, Allam AH, Lombardi GP et al. Atherosclerosis across 4000 years of human history: the Horus study of four ancient populations. Lancet 2013; published online March 10, 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ S0140-6736(13)60598-X