Atherosclerosis found in CT scans of Egyptian mummies


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Researchers using a CT scanner have
discovered the real mummy’s curse: Hardening of the arteries.

More than half the middle-aged and older Egyptian mummies
that underwent CT scans earlier this year probably had atherosclerosis, an
international team of researchers says.

Their findings cast doubt on the common idea that
atherosclerosis is a result of the bad habits and worse diets of modern

Instead, it may be a byproduct of civilization itself.
Large-scale agriculture creates a class of people with lots of rich food and
not much physical labor.

That combination has been clogging arteries for millennia.

“We think of atherosclerosis being related to risk
factors of modern life, but clearly the disease has been around since before Moses,”
said Randall Thompson, a St. Luke’s Hospital cardiologist and a lead researcher
on the study. St. Luke’s is in Kansas City, Mo.

“The disease is largely a part of being human,” he

Thompson presented the findings Tuesday at an American Heart
Association conference.

The study appears Nov. 18 in the Journal of the American
Medical Association.

Previous studies have found a variety of diseases in mummies
— tooth decay, tuberculosis, parasites, heart disease.

But Thompson and the other researchers questioned whether
heart disease could have been common thousands of years ago. After all, ancient
Egyptians didn’t smoke. They didn’t drive, or munch chips and watch TV.

The research team included cardiologists from the United
States and Egypt. They examined mummies at the Egyptian National Museum of
Antiquities in Cairo that were about 1,600 to 3,500 years old.

Only the well-to-do of ancient Egypt could afford to be
mummified. The 16 mummies the researchers examined included priests and members
of the royal household.

The researchers scanned aortas, the large artery of the
heart; carotid arteries in the neck; and arteries in the legs.

CT scans can reveal calcium deposits in artery walls, a sure
sign of atherosclerosis.

Five mummies definitely had atherosclerosis. Four more
probably had it.

One “definite” case was Lady Rai, nursemaid to
Queen Amrose Nefetari.

She may have suffered a heart attack, Thompson said.

“Reaching out across 3,500 years to see her medical
condition, it’s very humanizing,” he said.

Peter Piccione, an Egyptologist at the University of
Charleston, wasn’t surprised by the high rate of atherosclerosis among the
ancient elite.

The well-to-do ate plenty of beef, pork, duck and goose.
Their bread was more refined that the coarse stuff of the peasantry. And they
had dessert laced with honey.

“They’re eating better and suffering for it,”
Piccione said.

A “civilized” diet like that is bound to lead to
atherosclerosis, said St. Luke’s cardiologist James O’Keefe.

O’Keefe holds the theory that we evolved to be
hunter-gatherers. We should be eating lean meats, fruit and nuts.

Our diets took a wrong turn about 10,000 years ago, when
agricultural societies started sprouting in the Middle East.

“Even before modern civilization came along,
atherosclerosis was showing up in people eating the wrong kind of food,”
O’Keefe said.

Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.