Mummies reveal heart disease plagued ancient Egyptians

CT scans of preserved individuals show hardening of arteries similar to that seen in people today

ORLANDO, Fla. — The curse of the mummy may truly be fatal. An examination of mummified bodies has revealed that ancient Egyptians suffered from hardening of the arteries in surprising frequency, suggesting that blame for heart disease extends beyond the modern culprits of smoking, fast food and the remote control.

NEW VIEW ON AN OLD PROBLEM Researchers put mummies through the CT scanner and found that a surprising number had clogged arteries. Images: Michael Miyamoto

Among 22 mummies who received full-body computed tomography scans, 16 had hearts or arteries preserved enough to study. Of those, nine had evidence of blockage from atherosclerosis. “This disease has been around since before the time of Moses,” said Randall Thompson of the St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City. Thompson and colleagues presented their findings November 17 at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2009. The data were also published in the Nov. 18 Journal of the American Medical Association.

Although researchers have previously taken X-rays and other images of famous mummies, “no one has ever put a series of ancient people through modern CT scans,” Thompson said. The mummies, from the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, ranged from 2,000 to 3,500 years old. All were selected by museum staff, who chose the most intact bodies from different spans of time. On a CT scan, the buildup of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances inside artery walls looks as distinct for the dead as the living.

The scientists decided to conduct the study after two of the research team members — Gregory Thomas of the University of California, Irvine and Adel Allam of the Al Azhar Medical School in Cairo — visited the museum in 2008. They noticed that the nameplate for Merenptah, who ruled around 1200 B.C., claimed the pharaoh had suffered from atherosclerosis. Curious to know whether this was true, the doctors gathered a research team to determine the prevalence of heart disease among the preserved representatives of an ancient, upper-class civilization. Funding came from Siemens, the National Bank of Egypt and the Mid America Heart Institute.

In Orlando, the scientists reported the consequences of all those fatted calves: Among the eight people in the sample who had lived past the age of 45, seven had signs of clogged arteries. The most ancient mummy to have suffered from heart disease was Lady Rai, a nursemaid to Queen Amrose Nefertari. She died around 1530 B.C. while she was in her 30s, though her cause of death is not known.

“We would have thought this was a disease of modern man,” said Samuel Wann of the Wisconsin Heart Hospital in Wauwatosa and a study team member. The results, he said, are bound to stoke an ongoing controversy among cardiologists. “We have a debate among our colleagues whether atherosclerosis is inevitable if you live long enough,” he said.

The findings should not be taken to mean that modern risk factors have no bearing on heart disease, said Robert Bonow, chief of cardiology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. The mummies studied would have had diets high in salt (for food preservation) and would have enjoyed the pampered lifestyle of the wealthy, so even these ancient people may have had risk factors like those of modern people, said Bonow, who was not part of the research team.

“This does not tell you what the true incidence was,” he said at the meeting. “Patients should not take this as evidence that they shouldn’t worry about preventing heart disease because it’s been around a long time.”

About Laura Beil

Laura Beil is a contributing correspondent. Based outside Dallas, Beil specializes in reporting on medicine, health policy and science.

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