A macabre study of mummified corpses shows that heart attacks and strokes may have plagued the ancient world as well as the modern one.
Scientists studied 137 mummies from Egypt and other locations around the world dating back 4,000 years.
More than a third showed signs of likely or definite hardening and narrowing of the arteries. The condition, known as atherosclerosis, is the primary cause of heart attacks and strokes caused by lack of blood to the brain.
Until now it had been widely assumed that today's high rates of heart and artery disease were chiefly the result of unhealthy modern lifestyles. The latest findings, published in The Lancet medical journal, suggests that other factors besides diet and lifestyle play a leading role in atherosclerosis.
A similar previous study restricted to Egyptian mummies also found signs of widespread atherosclerosis. But experts speculated that this was because only high-ranking individuals, who would have eaten a rich diet, underwent mummification in ancient Egypt. Artery disease was not thought to be widespread among the ordinary population.
Study leader Professor Randall Thompson, from Saint Luke's Mid-America Heart Institute in Kansas City, United States, said: "The fact that we found similar levels of atherosclerosis in all of the different cultures we studied, all of whom had very different lifestyles and diets, suggests that atherosclerosis may have been far more common in the ancient world than previously thought.
"Furthermore, the mummies we studied from outside Egypt were produced naturally as a result of local climate conditions, meaning that it's reasonable to assume that these mummies represent a reasonable cross-section of the population, rather than the specially selected elite group of people who were selected for mummification in ancient Egypt."
The scientists put the mummies through a CT (computerised tomography) X-ray scanner to look for hard calcified deposits in arteries, a key hallmark of long-standing atherosclerosis. Among the remains were dried out corpses from ancient Egypt and the Aleutian islands in Alaska. In some cases, arterial structures had vanished leaving the calcified plaque behind. Overall 34% - a total of 47 - mummies showed evidence of arterial disease. As with people today, older individuals tended to be more likely to show signs of the condition.
Prof Thompson added: "In the last century, atherosclerotic vascular disease has replaced infectious disease as the leading cause of death across the developed world. A common assumption is that the rise in levels of atherosclerosis is predominantly lifestyle-related, and that if modern humans could emulate pre-industrial or even pre-agricultural lifestyles, that atherosclerosis, or at least its clinical manifestations, would be avoided.
"Our findings seem to cast doubt on that assumption, and at the very least, we think they suggest that our understanding of the causes of atherosclerosis is incomplete, and that it might be somehow inherent to the process of human ageing."