Mummy CT scan finds that ancient Egyptians had heart disease

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
mummies, cardiovascular disease, CT scans, atherosclerosis
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Heart disease experts have long been of the opinion that cardiovascular disease is primarily a disease limited to modern times; however, a new study has found that Egyptians living 4,000 years ago had significant evidence of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. An international research team of cardiologists determined this after performing computerized tomography (CT) scans on 137 mummies.

The researchers presented their findings on March 10 at the American College of Cardiology annual meeting (San Francisco; March 9-11) and published online on March 11 in The Lancet. The researchers noted that atherosclerosis is thought to be a disease of modern human beings and related to contemporary lifestyles. However, its prevalence before the modern era is unknown. Therefore, they conducted a study to evaluate preindustrial populations for atherosclerosis.

The investigators performed whole body CT scans of 137 mummies from four different geographical regions or populations spanning more than 4,000 years. The subjects resided in ancient Egypt, ancient Peru, the Ancestral Puebloans of southwest America, and the Unangan of the Aleutian Islands. Atherosclerosis was regarded as definite if a calcified plaque was seen in the wall of an artery and probable if calcifications were seen along the expected course of an artery.

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The researchers noted that they found probable or definite atherosclerosis in 47 (34%) of 137 mummies and in all four geographical populations: 29 (38%) of 76 ancient Egyptians, 13 (25%) of 51 ancient Peruvians, two (40%) of five Ancestral Puebloans, and three (60%) of five Unangan hunter gatherers. Atherosclerosis was present in the aorta in 28 (20%) mummies, iliac or femoral arteries in 25 (18%), popliteal or tibial arteries in 25 (18%), carotid arteries in 17 (12%), and coronary arteries in six (4%). Of the five vascular beds examined, atherosclerosis was present in one to two beds in 34 (25%) mummies, in three to four beds in 11 (8%), and in all five vascular beds in two (1%). Age at time of death was positively correlated with atherosclerosis (average age at death was 43] years for mummies with atherosclerosis vs. 32 years for those without. In addition, the average age was 32 years for mummies with no arterial beds involved; the average age was 42 years for those with atherosclerosis in one or two beds; it was 44 years for those with atherosclerosis in three to five beds.

The researchers concluded that atherosclerosis was common in four preindustrial populations including pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers. Although commonly assumed to be a modern disease, the presence of atherosclerosis in pre-modern human beings raises the possibility of a more basic predisposition to the disease.

Take home message:
Ancient cultures, particularly hunter-gatherers, worked hard to obtain an adequate food supply; thus, they tended to have a normal—or even below normal—body mass index. In addition, they often partook of a simple but healthy diet. If they were subjected to stress, it generally was a physical one of “flight or flight.” In contrast, modern men and women often are subjected to stress without reacting physically; thus, stress hormones raise blood pressure and other bodily functions without subsequent physical activity. One thought is that only the upper class was mummified. Perhaps these individuals had minimal physical exercise and dined on the best—but probably not—the healthiest foods.

Reference: The Lancet.

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