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THE NATION

A history of heart disease

Hardened arteries are found in ancient Egyptian mummies, suggesting the modern diet's not to blame.

November 18, 2009|Thomas H. Maugh II

CT scans of Egyptian mummies, some as much as 3,500 years old, show evidence of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which is normally thought of as a disease caused by modern lifestyles, researchers said Tuesday.

The study, presented at the American Heart Assn. meeting in Orlando, Fla., was conceived by Dr. Gregory Thomas, a cardiologist at UC Irvine, after he read about Pharoah Merenptah at the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo.

When he died at age 60 in 1203 BC, Merenptah was plagued by atherosclerosis, arthritis and dental decay.

Thomas reasoned that some evidence of the atherosclerosis -- which is characterized by calcium in plaques -- might still be present. He organized a team of cardiologists and Egyptologists who scanned a series of 20 mummies in the museum during a week in February.

Among the 16 mummies whose arteries or hearts could be identified, nine had calcification clearly seen in the arteries or in the path where the arteries should have been.

The disease was clearly age-related: Seven of the eight mummies who were older than 45 when they died had calcification, compared with only two of eight that were younger than 45.

Men and women were affected equally. The most ancient of the mummies afflicted with atherosclerosis was Lady Rai, who had been a nursemaid to Queen Ahmose Nefertiti. She died at the age of 30 or 40 around 1530 BC, about 300 years prior to the time of Moses and 200 years before King Tut. Other mummies that were examined died as recently as AD 364. All the mummies were of high social status.

"We are observing the footprint of the same disease process in people who lived thousands of years ago," said coauthor Dr. Michael I. Miyamoto, a cardiologist at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. "Perhaps atherosclerosis is part of being human."

The study's results may mean scientists need to look beyond modern risk factors to fully understand what causes the condition, the researchers said.

Both groups, however, share some risk factors. The high-status Egyptians ate a diet high in meat from cattle, ducks and geese, all fatty.

And because mechanical refrigeration was not available, salt -- another contributing factor in heart disease -- was widely used for food preservation.

--

thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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