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An ancient disease

Created date

September 24th, 2013
A researcher inspecting a mummy

Experts used to think that certain health conditions were largely a result of modern lifestyles—atherosclerosis, for instance.

Also called hardening of the arteries, this disease occurs when plaque—a sticky substance made up of mostly cholesterol, other fatty compounds, and minerals—adheres to artery walls and blocks blood flow to vital organs. Heart attacks, strokes, and kidney disease are conditions that can result from narrowed or blocked arteries. Atherosclerosis of the coronary arteries is the most common type of heart disease and leads to almost 400,000 deaths in the U.S. every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many present-day conveniences can lead to risk factors for atherosclerosis, including obesity, lack of physical activity, and high fat diets.

But a recent study of the mummified remains of people who lived 4,000 years ago shows that atherosclerosis is in fact an ancient disease and the causes may be more complex than originally thought.

More than 30% of the mummies that were studied showed evidence of atherosclerosis. This finding led researchers to speculate that chronic infections before the invention of antibiotics may have led to inflammation, a known contributor to the disease, or that atherosclerosis is simply a natural consequence of the aging process.

These findings don’t mean that people have no control over the development of the disease. Research shows that exercising, avoiding tobacco, and eating a healthy and varied diet significantly reduce the risk of developing atherosclerosis.