Scans of egyptian mummies show hardening of arteries is not a modern disease

Scans of egyptian mummies show hardening of arteries is not a modern disease

An international team of scientists who took CT scans of mummified bodies of people who lived in Egypt up to 3,500 years ago found evidence to suggest that hardening of arteries, a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes, is not a modern disease and may have been quite common among ancient Egyptians of high socioeconomic status.

The study, which appears in the November 18th issue of JAMA, Journal of the American Medical Association, was the work of researchers from the Universities of California at Irvine and San Diego, the Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, the Wisconsin Heart Hospital in Milwaukee, all in the US, and the Al Azhar Medical School in Cairo, Egypt.

Corresponding author Dr Gregory Thomas, associate clinical professor of cardiology at the University of California (UC) Irvine, told the media that:

"Atherosclerosis is widespread among modern-day humans and -- despite differences in ancient and modern lifestyles -- we found that it was rather common in ancient Egyptians of high socioeconomic status living more than three millennia ago."

A press statement from UC Irvine suggests that Thomas became professionally interested in mummies because the nameplate of the pharaoh Merenptah (who ruled between 1213 and 1203 BC) at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo says he died at around the age of 60 and had atherosclerosis, arthritis and dental decay.

So together with other cardiologists from Egypt and the US, and with the help of experts in Egyptology and preservation, Thomas and colleagues conducted whole body CT (Computed x-ray Tomography) scans on 20 of the museum's mummies that were in a good state of preservation.

CT scans can show the presence of calcium hydroxyapatite, which is present in bones, but is also believed to be an indicator of the calcification that occurs in advanced atherosclerosis where the soft plaques deposited on artery walls harden with age.

The Egyptologists and preservationists on the team also analysed the skeletons of the mummies to find out how old they were when they died.

16 of the mummies had identifiable arteries or hearts, and further work on them revealed that:

  • 9 had calcified arteries, with some showing hardening in as many as 6 arteries.
  • 8 were older than 45 when they died and 8 were younger.
  • 7 of the mummies of older people had calcified arteries compared to only 2 of the ones who had died younger.
  • Calcifications were observed in mummies of both genders.
The most ancient mummy to show signs of atherosclerosis was that of Lady Rai, who died around 1530 BC. She had been Queen Ahmose-Nefertari's nursemaid and lived about 300 years before Moses and 200 years before King Tutankhamun.

All the mummies whose identities could be determined were of high socioeconomic status, said the researchers. They generally served in the court of the Pharaoh, or as priests and priestesses.

While the researchers were not able to find out what diets the individual mummies had lived on, we know that it was common for people of their status to eat meat from cattle, ducks and geese.

Thomas said that while they couldn't say whether atherosclerosis was the cause of death for any of the mummies they examined, they were able to confirm that the disease was present in many of them, suggesting that:

"We may have to look beyond modern risk factors to fully understand the disease."

The results of the study were also presented on 17 November at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions in Orlando, Florida.

"Computed Tomographic Assessment of Atherosclerosis in Ancient Egyptian Mummies."

Adel H. Allam; Randall C. Thompson; L. Samuel Wann; Michael I. Miyamoto; Gregory S. Thomas.

JAMA, November 18, 2009; 302: 2091 - 2094.

Source: UC Irvine, NIH.

KC researchers scan mummies to study heart disease (Video Medical And Professional 2020).

Section Issues On Medicine: Cardiology