Scans of Egyptian Mummies Show Heart Disease Was Ancient Malady

Findings suggest that problem stems from more than 'modern lifestyle,' expert says

TUESDAY, May 17 (HealthDay News) -- Modern technology reveals that ancient Egyptians, including a princess of noble blood, suffered from coronary artery disease, according to a new report.

The Horus study, which used whole-body computerized tomography (CT) scanning to visualize the arteries of 52 ancient Egyptian mummies, found that atherosclerosis -- plaque build-up in the arteries -- was common among a group of middle-age and older ancient Egyptians.

"Overall, it was striking how much atherosclerosis we found," Dr. Gregory S. Thomas, director of nuclear cardiology education at the University of California, Irvine, and co-principal investigator of the study, said in a news release from the European Society of Cardiology.

"We think of atherosclerosis as a disease of modern lifestyle, but it's clear that it also existed 3,500 years ago," he said. "Our findings certainly call into question the perception of atherosclerosis as a modern disease."

The study, slated for presentation Tuesday at the International Conference of Non-Invasive Cardiovascular Imaging, in Amsterdam, found that recognizable arteries were present in 44 of the 52 mummies scanned. Arterial calcification, a marker of atherosclerosis, was also evident in almost half of the mummies scanned.

Atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries was evident in three of the mummies investigated, including Princess Ahmose-Meryet-Amon, a noble who lived in Thebes (Luxor) between 1580 and 1550 B.C.

"Today, she would have needed bypass surgery," Thomas said.

The princess, who died in her 40s, probably would have eaten a diet rich in vegetables and fruit and with limited servings of meat. The researchers also noted that wheat and barley were dietary staples during this period of ancient Egypt and that tobacco and trans-fats were still unknown.

Considering the relatively healthy and active lifestyle in ancient Egypt, Thomas and his co-principal investigator, Dr. Adel Allam of Al Azhar University in Cairo, offered three possible causes for the incidents of atherosclerosis, including:

  • There may still be some unknown risk factors for cardiovascular disease, or a gap in researchers' understanding of it.
  • Genetics may predispose a person to developing atherosclerosis.
  • Parasitic infections, which were common among ancient Egyptians, may have caused an inflammatory response that put these humans at risk for coronary disease.

The researchers also pointed out that diet may still have played a role in coronary artery disease in ancient Egypt, at least in the case of the princess. As nobility, they said, she may not have shared the same diet as a common Egyptian and could have enjoyed more meals rich in meat, butter and cheese. During this period in history, foods were also preserved in salt, which may also have had an adverse effect.

Because the study was to be presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute provides detailed information on atherosclerosis.

Mary Elizabeth Dallas SOURCE: European Society of Cardiology, news release, May 17, 2011

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