Science

Mummified Inuits that lived 500 years ago had clogged-up arteries despite omega-3 rich fishy diets


Scans of mummified Inuits from 16th-century Greenland revealed that the ancient hunters suffered from clogged-up arteries despite a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Atherosclerosis — the build-up of plaques of fat, cholesterol and calcium in one’s arteries — is a leading cause of death today in the world’s wealthier countries.

While often seen as a product of modern lifestyles, evidence of the condition has been found in human remains dating back as far as around 4,000 BC.

However, none of these examples enjoyed a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which has been suggested can help protect against plaque build-up.

Researchers turned to four incredibly well-preserved Inuits, who would have eaten a marine-based, omega 3-rich diet, to see if the fatty acid improved arterial health.

The findings suggest that diets rich in omega-3 may not guarantee against plaque buildup — however, the researchers caution that it is unclear what other factors were at play.

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Scans of mummified Inuits from 16th-century Greenland revealed that the ancient hunters suffered from clogged-up arteries despite a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids

Scans of mummified Inuits from 16th-century Greenland revealed that the ancient hunters suffered from clogged-up arteries despite a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids

Cardiologist L. Samuel Wann of Ascension Healthcare in Milwaukee and colleagues studied four Inuit mummies taken from the collections of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge. 

Preserved largely by the cold, the mummified individuals were found on the island of Uunartaq, off of the coast of Greenland, in 1929. 

Based on their clothing and surrounding grave goods, archaeologists have concluded that the mummies were buried in the 1500s.

During their lives, the group would have lived in huts made from stone, whale bone and seal skin and would have hunted from kayaks with spears, bows and arrows.

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Their prey would have included fish, birds, marine mammals and caribou — with this marine-based diet likely to have been rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Based on their skeletal and dental features, the experts determined that the mummies included two men and two women between the ages of 18–30. 

The researchers used a CT scanner to take detailed images of the mummies’ insides, which were then analysed by Dr Wann and his team of four other cardiologists and two radiologists with experience interpreting scans of mummified remains.

Three of the mummies were found to have so-called ‘calcified atheroma’ — an accumulation of plaques of fatty material in the arteries which appeared as high-density regions in the CT scans.

The buildups were seen to be similar to those in living humans with atherosclerosis — although in the mummy’s case, it was unclear if this condition led to their demise.

Atherosclerosis — the build-up of plaques of fat, cholesterol and calcium in one's arteries — is a leading cause of death in the world's wealthier countries. Pictured, a 3D reconstruction of one of the mummies' abdomens. The arrow points out a calcified atherosclerotic plaque

Atherosclerosis — the build-up of plaques of fat, cholesterol and calcium in one’s arteries — is a leading cause of death in the world’s wealthier countries. Pictured, a 3D reconstruction of one of the mummies’ abdomens. The arrow points out a calcified atherosclerotic plaque

While often seen as a product of modern lifestyles, evidence of atherosclerosis has been found in human remains dating back as far as around 4,000 BC. Pictured, a 2D reconstruction of one of the mummies' abdomens. The arrow points out a calcified atherosclerotic plaque

While often seen as a product of modern lifestyles, evidence of atherosclerosis has been found in human remains dating back as far as around 4,000 BC. Pictured, a 2D reconstruction of one of the mummies’ abdomens. The arrow points out a calcified atherosclerotic plaque

Researchers turned to the four preserved Inuits, who would have eaten a marine-based, omega 3-rich diet, to see if such a lifestyle resulted in improved arterial health. Pictured, 2D (left) and 3D (right) reconstructions of one of the mummies' chests. The arrows point out calcified atherosclerotic plaques

Researchers turned to the four preserved Inuits, who would have eaten a marine-based, omega 3-rich diet, to see if such a lifestyle resulted in improved arterial health. Pictured, 2D (left) and 3D (right) reconstructions of one of the mummies’ chests. The arrows point out calcified atherosclerotic plaques

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The findings suggest that such diets may not guarantee against plaque buildup — however, the researchers caution that it is unclear what other factors were at play.Pictured, 2D (left) and 3D (right) reconstructions of one of the mummies' necks. The arrows point out calcified atherosclerotic plaques

The findings suggest that such diets may not guarantee against plaque buildup — however, the researchers caution that it is unclear what other factors were at play.Pictured, 2D (left) and 3D (right) reconstructions of one of the mummies’ necks. The arrows point out calcified atherosclerotic plaques

‘This [study] presents evidence for the presence of calcified plaques in the mummified remains of 3 young Inuit individuals living 500 years ago,’ the researchers wrote in their paper.

This, they added, suggests ‘the presence of atherosclerosis despite [the mummies’] vigorous lifestyle and marine-based diet.’

However, the researchers cautioned that the complex nature of atherosclerosis makes it difficult to determining the exact impact of particular factors, such as the preventative effect of an omega-3-rich diet.

Other factors — like environmental smoke produced by the use of indoor fires — could have helped produce atherosclerosis in this ancient Inuit population. 

The full findings of the study were published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Cardiologist L. Samuel Wann of Ascension Healthcare in Milwaukee and colleagues studied four Inuit mummies taken from the collections of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge. Preserved largely by the cold, the mummified individuals were found on the island of Uunartaq, off of the coast of Greenland, in 1929

Cardiologist L. Samuel Wann of Ascension Healthcare in Milwaukee and colleagues studied four Inuit mummies taken from the collections of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge. Preserved largely by the cold, the mummified individuals were found on the island of Uunartaq, off of the coast of Greenland, in 1929

WHAT IS ATHEROSCLEROSIS? 

The stages of plaque development in atherosclerosis

The stages of plaque development in atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis occurs when plaques made of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances accumulate in artery walls.

Over time, the blood vessels harden and narrow, which restricts the flow of blood around the body.

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When these plaques rupture, they form a blood clot that can further block the flow of oxygen-rich blood.

Atherosclerosis is most serious when it reduces blood supply to the heart or brain, which can result in a heart attack or stroke, respectively.

The condition, and the diseases it can cause, is the single biggest cause of death in the developed world, with it being responsible for one in three fatalities.

Atherosclerosis often starts in childhood and worsens with age, however, most do not experience symptoms until middle age or older.

Risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated cholesterol levels
  • Inactivity
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Poor nutrition
  • Excessive alcohol consumption

All the above can damage the thin layer, the endothelium, that keeps the inside of our arteries smooth.

Once damaged, ‘bad’ cholesterol accumulates in the artery wall.

The body sends immune cells to clean up this cholesterol, which can then get stuck in the damaged site. 

This causes plaque to build-up over time. 

Source: Heart Research Institute 



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