Scientists Discover Heart Disease in Ancient Egyptian Mummies
Scientists Discover Heart Disease in Ancient Egyptian Mummies

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An international team of scientists has discovered heart disease in ancient Egyptian mummies, dispelling the view that cardiovascular disease is an illness of modern humans.  

Researchers used computer X-ray tomography, or CAT scans, to see whether they could detect evidence of heart disease in 22 mummies located at the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, Egypt.

CAT scans are commonly used to monitor cardiovascular disease patients.

The mummies were between 2,000 and 35-hundred years old, according to Randall Thompson, a cardiologist with the Mid-America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. Thompson, who led a study of the mummies, says they were extremely well-preserved.

"There was cardiovascular tissue in a fair number of these mummies," said Randall Thompson. "Sixteen had either the heart or cardiovascular system intact that we could say something about them.  And we also found atherosclerosis, or the disease that causes heart attacks and strokes, was not uncommon."

Thompson says the CAT scans showed definite evidence of atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of fat, cholesterol and calcium, on the inside walls of blood vessels of three mummies and probable atherosclerosis in three more.  Atherosclerosis causes stiffening and narrowing of the arteries, restricting blood flow to the heart and brain.

Thompson says atherosclerosis was significantly more common in mummies that were 45 years of age or older at the time of death, and it looked much like calcification seen in the arteries of modern heart patients.

Although the mummies had been members of ancient Egypt's upper classes, meaning they lived and ate well, Thompson says their lifestyle was significantly healthier than today's.

"They didn't eat processed food or transfats; didn't smoke, and even the wealthier individuals almost certainly got a lot of exercise," he said. "There was no motorized transportation; they had to walk everywhere they went.  And so we were a bit surprised.  They had the disease that causes heart attack and strokes way back then even though their diet and lifestyle were quite different than ours."

Thompson says he's using what he's learned from his mummy study to counsel his patients, especially those who have dieted and exercised in an effort to avoid heart disease.

"I'm able to point out the disease has been around so long, since really literally before the time of Moses, that they have a genetic hand-me-down," said Thompson. "I think it helps them get beyond the feelings of guilt or denial to focus on what they can do about it. "

Thompson believes cardiovascular disease appears to be part of the human condition, and he said scientists should pay attention to beyond known risk factors as causes for heart disease.
Researchers describe their discovery of heart disease in ancient mummies this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.