Coronary heart disease is not a modern ailment, said researchers who after scanning more than 50 Egyptian mummies concluded atherosclerosis was commonplace in these preserved ancient bodies.

These were the conclusions of a study presented in New Orleans on Sunday at the annual scientific session of the American College of Cardiology (ACC). A report of it also appears in this week’s online issue of Journal of the American College of Cardiology Imaging.

Senior and corresponding author, Dr Gregory S. Thomas, a clinical and research cardiologist at Mission Internal Medical Group, Mission Viejo, California, and professor and director of Nuclear Cardiology Education, University of California, Irvine, said in a statement reported by HealthDay News that the discovery shows we may not be so different from our ancient ancestors as we thought.

Coronary heart disease (CHD), also called coronary artery disease, is a narrowing of the small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. It is commonly caused by atherosclerosis, a disease where plaque builds up inside arteries, making it harder for oxygen-rich blood to get to the heart and other parts of the body.

The plaque that furs up the inside of the artery wall is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other chemicals in the blood. Over time, as it hardens and narrows the artery, it can lead to serious problems, such as heart attack, stroke, and even death.

For years, we have assumed atherolsclerosis is a modern problem, due to our fast-food diet, sedentary lifestyle, and other environmental risk factors associated with the developed world.

But it would appear that ancient Egyptians also had this ailment, and they weren’t exactly sedentary.

For the study, on several visits to Egypt, Thomas and colleagues performed whole body CT (computed tomography) scans of 52 ancient Egyptian mummies, including one of an Egyptian princess that lived over 3,500 years ago, between 1580 and 1550 BC, and other mummies from the Middle Kingdom to the Greco-Roman period.

On the CT scans they looked for cardiovascular structures and signs of arterial calcifications. To ensure reliable results, the images were interpreted by getting 7 physician to agree on the readings. They also collected demographic data from historical and museum records and estimated age at time of death “from the computed tomography skeletal evaluation”.

The results showed that:

  • 44 of the 52 mummies had identifiable cardiovascular structures, and of these, 20 had either definite (12 subjects) or probable (8 subjects) atherosclerosis (definite meant they could see the artery and its calcification evidence, probable meant they could see calcifications where they expected an artery to be).
  • Calicifications were present in a number of arteries throughout the bodies: including the aorta, the coronary, carotid, liac, femoral and peripheral leg arteries.
  • The 20 mummies with definite or probable atherosclerosis were on average older at time of death (average age 45.1 years give or take 9.2 years) than the mummies where they could see the cardiovascular structures but not signs of atherosclerosis (average age 34.5 years give or take 11.8 years).
  • Two mummies showed signs of “arterial atherosclerosis with calcifications in virtually every arterial bed”.
  • The princess was one of two mummies that showed signs of definite coronary atherosclerosis.

The researchers said this study is the earliest documented evidence of coronary atherosclerosis in a human, and shows definite or probably atherosclerosis existed in mummies who lived in ancient eras covering a time span of more than 2,000 years.

“Atherosclerosis is commonplace in mummified ancient Egyptians,” they concluded.

While the CT scans did not enable them to establish the cause of death, the researchers noted that ancient Egyptian scrolls do describe symptoms similar to cardiac chest pain.

“Atherosclerosis in Ancient Egyptian Mummies: The Horus Study.”
Allam, Adel H., Thompson, Randall C., Wann, L. Samuel, Miyamoto, Michael I., el-Halim Nur el-Din, Abd, el-Maksoud, Gomaa Abd, Al-Tohamy Soliman, Muhammad, Badr, Ibrahem, el-Rahman Amer, Hany Abd, Sutherland, M. Linda, Sutherland, James D., Thomas, Gregory S.
J Am Coll Cardiol Img, Published online 3 Apr 2011.

Additional sources: HealthDay News (3 Apr 2011), Orange County Register (19 Jan 2011).

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD