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Even ancient Egyptians suffered hardening of the arteries, CT scans show

November 17, 2009 |  1:00 pm

Mummy3

CT scans of Egyptian mummies, some as much as 3,500 years old, shows evidence of atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, which is normally thought of as a disease caused by modern lifestyles, researchers said today. "Atherosclerosis is ubiquitous 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," said co-author Dr. Gregory Thomas, a cardiologist at UC Irvine. "The findings suggest that we may have to look beyond modern risk factors to fully understand the disease."

Mummy1

"Perhaps atherosclerosis is part of being human, as we are observing the footprint of the same disease process in people who lived thousands of years ago," added co-author Dr. Michael I. Miyamoto, a cardiologist at the UC San Diego School of Medicine."The possibility that humans throughout time might share the same predisposition to the development of certain afflictions was poignantly illustrated to us" by the study, presented at the American Heart Association meeting in Orlando.

The study was conceived by Thomas after he read the nameplate of Pharoah Merenptah in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cario. The nameplate says that, when he died at age 60 in 1203 BC, Merenptah was plagued by atherosclerosis, arthritis and dental decay. Because atherosclerosis is characterized by calcium in plaques, Thomas reasoned that some evidence of the disease might still be present even after so long. He organized a team of cardiologists and Egyptologists who scanned a series of 20 mummies in the Egyptian Museum during the week of Feb. 8, 2009. The scanning was performed on a Siemens machine permanently installed at the museum.

Among the 16 mummies who had identifiable arteries or hearts, nine had calcification clearly seen in the arteries or in the path where the arteries should have been. The disease was clearly age-related. Seven of the eight who were over the age of 45 when they died had calcification, compared to only two of eight that were younger than 45. Men and women were affected equally. The most ancient of the mummies afflicted with atherosclerosis was Lady Rai, who had been a nursemaid to Queen Ahmose Nefertiti. She died at the age of 30 to 40 around 1530 BC, about 300 years prior to the time of Moses and 200 years before King Tut. Other mummies examined died as recently as AD 364.

Mummy2 The findings should, perhaps not have been surprising. The high-status Egyptians ate a diet high in meat from cattle, ducks and geese, all fatty. Because mechanical refrigeration was not available, salt--another constributing factor in heart disease--was widely used for preservation. Maybe the question that should be asked is why they didn't have higher levels of disease.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II

Top: Mummy of Esankh (male, Third Intermediate Periodm 1079-712 BC) undergoing scanning.

Middle: Mummy of Djeher (male, Ptolemaic Era, 304-30 BC) entering scanner.

Bottom: Mummy of Esankh undergoing preparation for CT scanning.

Credit: Dr. Michael Miyamoto

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