For the cardiologist coronary artery disease and atheroscleorsis are often thought of as 20th century problems caused by diet, smoking habits, exercise patterns and lifestyle. It is often said that if we were able to get back to a more primitive diet and to have the daily exercise of the ancient hunter-gatherers then heart disease would be a thing of the past. We also think of hardening of the arteries (so called calcification) as a problem of the elderly person with coronary artery disease, not seen commonly in middle aged individuals.
So it is of great interest to see the publication of the HORUS study which has looked for evidence of vascular disease in 137 mummies from around the world (ancient Egypt, ancient Peru, the Ancestral Puebloans of southwest America and the Unangan of the Aleutian Islands). Using whole body CT scanning atherosclerosis was identifed by looking for the presence of calcified plaque in the wall of an artery. Atherosclerosis was noted in just over a third of mummies and in 4% of coronary arteries. This does not seem like a high proportion in the coronary arteries but we have to bear in mind that the average age of the mummies at death was 38 years.
Although we commonly assume atherosclerosis to be a modern disease it was certainly present in pre-modern human beings and this raises significant questions about the basic predisposition and also the influences of lifestyle on the development of the atherosclerosis.