Feeling bad about your junk food diet? New research on Egyptian mummies finds death by clogged arteries.
There was no Golden Arches or Krispy Kreme doughnuts for ancient Egyptian royalty. And they weren’t smokers, addicted to the Internet, or couch potatoes. But they do share similar health consequences with the people who do these things today: Their coronary arteries were clogged all the same. A new US-Egyptian research team studying CT scans of mummies — done on a sampling of the elite in ancient Egypt — found that almost half showed evidence of coronary atherosclerosis in one or more of the arteries supplying blood to the heart and brain. The research turns the tables on the understanding of underlying factors of heart disease and stroke.
The discovery also calls into question the perception of atherosclerosis — a buildup of arterial plaque that can result in a heart attack or stroke — as a modern disease. On one of the mummies, Princess Ahmose Meyret Amon born around 1580 B.C. and who died in her 40s, was found to have had blockages in two of her three main heart arteries — and these are blockages that could have led to one or more heart attacks, the researchers report.
She now represents the first person in human history known to have had heart disease.
“Commonly, we think of coronary artery or heart disease as a consequence of our modern lifestyles,” says study researcher Dr. Gregory Thomas, clinical professor of cardiology at UC Irvine: “Our results point to a missing link in our understanding of heart disease, because if this were the case, why would ancient Egyptians with lifestyles so different from ours have atherosclerosis?”
While the American and Egyptian researchers first identified atherosclerosis in a smaller 2009 mummy study, this effort involved whole-body CT scans on 52 mummies housed in Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Of the 44 with identifiable arteries or hearts, 45 percent had calcifications either in the wall of an artery or along the course of an artery highly suggestive of atherosclerosis.
Half the mummies had hardened arteries
Most of the atherosclerosis was in the large arteries of the body, including the abdominal aorta, as the investigators had found in 2009. However, the current study determined that key small arteries supplying the heart and brain were also involved. About 7 percent of the mummies had obstructions in their heart arteries, and 14 percent had blockages in the arteries to the brain — the carotid arteries — a leading cause of stroke.
“We found atherosclerosis in the heart and carotid arteries to be much more prevalent than previously imagined,” says co-investigator Dr. Michael Miyamoto, a cardiologist at Mission Internal Medical Group in Mission Viejo and a student in UCI’s Health Care Executive MBA program. “Some of the mummies had evidence of vascular disease that was surprisingly widespread, similar to some of our heart patients today.”
It’s hard to know what they ate, but based on evidence, they believe that meat was a smaller part of their diet than ours today. This means that we really don’t understand heart disease as much as we have thought.
“We know that ancient Egyptians had an overall better diet and were more active, yet they still had the same disease we have. This discovery indicates that we don’t understand atherosclerosis and heart disease as well as we think we do,” says Thomas.
The research was presented at the American College of Cardiology’s annual meeting in New Orleans.
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