Egyptian Royalty suffered from Heart Disease

DFN: Evidence heart disease isn’t a modern day phenomena, but strongly suggests high salt diet a contributing factor.

Heart Disease Found in Egyptian Mummies


ORLANDO, Fla. — Researchers said they found evidence of hardening of the arteries in Egyptian mummies dating as far back as 3,500 years, challenging longstanding assumptions that cardiovascular disease is mainly a malady of modern societies.

A team of heart-imaging experts and Egyptologists examined 22 mummies from the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo in a CT scanning machine, looking for evidence of calcium buildup that could indicate vascular disease.

Scientists scanned 20 mummies, and examined scans of two more, for the study.

More photos and interactive graphics They were able to identify the hearts, arteries or both in 16 of the mummies, nine of whom had deposits of calcification. An analysis determined the deposits were either definite or probable evidence of atherosclerosis, the condition that leads to heart attacks and strokes.

"Not only do we have atherosclerosis now, it was prevalent as long as 3,500 years ago," said Gregory Thomas, a cardiologist and imaging specialist at University of California, Irvine, who was principal investigator of the study. "It is part of the human condition."

The research was presented Tuesday at the American Heart Association scientific meeting here. A report is also scheduled to appear in Wednesday’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Heart disease is the world’s leading killer, and it is increasingly common in developing countries such as China, India and in Latin America. The growing prevalence of the disease is often attributed to urbanization, fast-food diets, smoking and sedentary lifestyles characteristic of Western societies.

"I was under the impression that most of what we deal with in atherosclerosis is a modern disease," said Raymond Gibbons, a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., who wasn’t involved with the study.

So was Dr. Thomas. When he gave a lecture in Cairo early in 2008, he and a colleague visited the Egyptian Museum. His eyebrows went up when he read the nameplate accompanying the mummy of Pharaoh Merenptah, who ruled between 1213 and 1203 B.C. The nameplate said that when the pharaoh died at about age 60, he had atherosclerosis, arthritis and dental decay.

"I didn’t believe it," he said. "I wanted to know whether it was accurate, and if it was, how often did people have it."

He helped assemble a team of imaging specialists, joined up with archaeologists and mummy experts, and got permission from Egyptian authorities to perform the studies, 20 of which were done at the museum last February. (Images from two previously scanned mummies are included in the study.)

The researchers found calcification in some arteries or along suspected arterial routes. On the scans, "atherosclerosis looks just like it does in our modern-day patients," said Randall Thompson, a cardiologist at Mid America Heart Institute, Kansas City, Mo., another researcher on the project.

Not surprising that upper class Egyptians, whose diets were more similar to ours than to their poorer countrymen, and who most likely led sedentary lives, had the same sort of cardiovascular disease as afflicts our society. ”

Where did it come from? Researchers don’t know for sure. But they noted that the mummies had all been members of upper-class Egyptian society, and their diets included meat from cattle, ducks and geese. In addition, because there wasn’t refrigeration, salt was commonly used to preserve meat and fish, raising the possibility that some of these Egyptians had high blood pressure. Whether anyone was obese couldn’t be determined by the scans, but tobacco wasn’t part of the pharaohs’ lifestyle.

The researchers couldn’t determine whether any among the group of Egyptians had actually died of cardiovascular disease.

Still, the findings suggest "we have to look beyond risk factors to explain why atherosclerosis occurs and why it progresses," Dr. Thompson said. Genetics likely play a role. "This disease is as old as the pyramids," he said.

The study was funded by National Bank of Egypt, Siemens AG of Germany and St. Luke’s Hospital Foundation in Kansas City.

Write to Ron Winslow at ron.winslow

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A5
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