You may remember the creepy skeletal prehistoric guy you learned about in elementary school, a preserved mummy discovered in the snowy Alps known as the “Ice Man,” or Ötzi.
A new study now says that the man, who lived around 5,300 years ago, might have had a genetic predisposition to heart disease. This is interesting, mostly because we assume that heart disease has risen significantly in the modern age due to super-sized fast food meals, the obesity epidemic, and lack of preventive medicine in the health care system. You wouldn’t think that our rough-and-tumble ancestors, who trekked across glaciers and hunted to survive, would have a heart disease risk similar to the current couch-potato human’s. The study, however, shows that Ötzi indeed had hardened arteries — even though he never smoked, drank huge Coca-Colas, or ate Big Macs in front of the TV screen.
“We were very surprised that he had a very strong disposition for cardiovascular disease,” Albert Zink, an author of the study who is also a paleopathologist at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano, Italy, told Fox News. “We didn’t expect that people who lived so long ago already had the genetic setup for getting such kinds of diseases.” They concluded that a person’s genetic risk for hardening of the arteries — known as atherosclerosis — was the same thousands of years ago as it is today.
The researchers were able to identify the Ice Man’s hardened arteries through CT scans that showed “evidence of calcium deposits associated with atherosclerotic plaques in the arteries of mummies as old as 5,000 years,” the authors said in a press release, according to HealthDay. “Even though our human ancestors lived far different lives than we do, their environments and lifestyles were not protecting them against the development of atherosclerosis.” The Ice Man in particular had a genetic mutation that’s one of the greatest predictors of heart attacks.
Though other ancient mummies have shown signs of clogged arteries, the Ice Man is the first and only ancient human that has shown a genetic predisposition for heart disease. The study doesn’t necessarily mean that the Ice Man and his kin were partaking in unhealthy lifestyles that are known to cause heart disease (poor eating habits and inactivity), but rather simply that the genes causing heart disease were nearly the same back then as they are now. Does this mean that genetics play a more important role in heart disease than previously believed? Zink says it’s possible, but further research comparing and contrasting other genes of ancient mummies would have to be carried out to come to a conclusion.
If you’re at risk for heart disease — whether it’s your genes or lifestyle triggering it — you shouldn’t let this stop you from changing your lifestyle. Smoking, high levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol, lack of exercise, diabetes, and obesity are all huge risk factors for heart disease (and are all preventable). Changing your lifestyle could have a significant impact on your cardiovascular health.