Uncovering Ancient Secrets Part 2: Mummies Offer Insights About Heart Disease

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Researchers are finding evidence of the disease in ancient times and around the globe, which may have implications on how modern medicine treats and prevents heart disease.

Last week, we learned about Chris Rowan, MD, the latest physician to join the Renown Institute for Heart & Vascular Health. He recently took a trip to Berlin as part of his work with a research team called the Horus Group in an attempt to diagnose the most ancient human ever with heart disease.

And the tool for that research: cardiac computerized tomography — more commonly called a CT scan. But how exactly does CT scan technology allow scientists to uncover evidence of heart disease in people who died millennia ago?

CT scan on mummy
Dr. Rowan performs a CT scan on an ancient mummy.

The Stories Mummies Tell

Bones contain calcium, which helps them endure. And calcium deposits are vital in piecing together the cardiovascular health picture of ancient humans, as the plaque that builds up in artery walls and causes blockages contains calcium.

“Calcium holds up over time — it actually looks like bone,” explains Dr. Rowan. “With certain calcium deposits, we’re actually able to see the remains of arteries and their condition.”

The foundation of the Horus Group research, then, is investigating these mummies, looking for physical evidence on a CT scan — a computerized x-ray technology that produces 3-D images. And in the past, they’ve found signs of fatty buildup in arteries. Time will tell if Dr. Rowan’s recent trip to Berlin to scan the oldest human investigated for heart disease will reveal the same evidence.

And all of this research raises a multitude of questions. If ancient humans developed atherosclerosis, how and why did they get it? Were there risk factors among ancient humans that still factor in today? Is there a genetic predisposition?

“While our current rates of atherosclerosis are higher than in ancient populations, that’s only part of the picture,” says Dr. Rowan. “When we study mummies across different populations of the world, it’s universal that atherosclerosis is present and has been documented to be for the last 6,000 years of human existence.”

The Connection Across Continents

Although Egypt transformed embalming into artistry, contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t the only country or culture that mummified the dead.

The results of research conducted by The Horus Group published in April 2013 involved scans of mummies from four distinct geographical areas, each with its own method for preserving the dead: Egypt, Peru, Puebloans of Southwest America and the Unangan of the Aleutian Islands. The Horus Group performed CT scans on ancient humans in each of these locations and universally found evidence of atherosclerosis.

The story is the same for populations around the globe in Korea, China, North America, Syria, Europe and South America — mummies in each geographical location revealed the presence of atherosclerosis. And studies continue. According to Dr. Rowan, researchers from the Smithsonian will soon travel to Mongolia to study Chinese mummies from the Gobi Desert, led by Dr. Bruno Frolich, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at the Smithsonian and fellow member of The Horus Group.

CT scan on mummy
Dr. Chris Rowan poses with one of his “ancient” patients.

The Prognosis

Research like that undertaken by Dr. Rowan and the Horus Group is painting a picture: Mummified remains of ancient humans from various geographical locations throughout the world — separate populations that lived different lifestyles in diverse climates, and consumed a wide range of foods — all presented cases of atherosclerosis without the influence of modern-day risk factors.

Questions remain about what may have caused the disease in ancient times. Smoke is a consideration — not from tobacco, but from the near-continual inhalation of smoke from cooking fires. The exposure could have caused chronic infection or inflammation that may have played a role in ancient atherosclerosis, but researchers have yet to confirm this theory.

And so cardiologists and medical experts, like Dr. Rowan, continue looking to our distant past in search of answers to a modern-day epidemic that claims thousands of lives every day.

Experts emphasize: There’s no reason to dismiss current protocol for preventing and treating cardiovascular diseases. But by providing new information about the origins and risk factors associated with heart disease, the study of ancient humans could, however, change the way we approach and treat these debilitating conditions.

So mummies could hold the key to future scientific breakthroughs about heart disease.

“The discovery of atherosclerosis in mummified remains has called into question whether this condition is simply a modern phenomenon — it’s possible that it has a genetic predisposition in human beings,” says Dr. Rowan. “There’s no way of knowing without looking at ancient human bodies, and mummies are perfect for that purpose.”

Watch in the coming year to learn if Dr. Rowan’s work in Berlin with The Horus Group did indeed produce the most ancient human yet found with evidence of atherosclerosis.

When hes not traveling the globe in pursuit of groundbreaking cardiac research, Dr. Rowan makes his home in Reno and cares for patients at the Renown Institute for Heart & Vascular Health.

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