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Egyptian mummies prove ancient people also had hardening of the arteries

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April 03, 2011|By Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times
  • The mummy Maiherpri undergoes CT scanning.
The mummy Maiherpri undergoes CT scanning. (Dr. Michael Miyamoto )

CT scans of Egyptian mummies show that many of them suffered from hardening of their arteries, researchers said Sunday. Cardiologists have generally believed that atherosclerosis is a byproduct of the modern lifestyle, caused by eating foods that are too high in fats, lack of exercise and smoking. The new findings indicate that "we may understand atherosclerosis less well than we think," Dr. Gregory S. Thomas, a cardiologist at UC Irvine, told a New Orleans meeting of the American College of Cardiology. It may be that humans "are predisposed to atherosclerosis," he said, "that it is part of our genetic makeup."

Thomas and his colleagues reported 18 months ago on a study of 16 mummies, in which they found hardening of the arteries in nine. Eight of those nine were older than 45 when they died. The oldest of the atherosclerotic mummies belonged to a woman known as Lady Rai, who had been a nursemaid to Queen Ahmose Nefertiti. She died at the age of 30 to 40 around 1530 BC, 200 years before the time of King Tut.

In the new study, Thomas and his colleagues in the U.S. and Egypt expanded the study to 52 Egyptian mummies dating from about 1981 BC to AD 364.  They were able to identify arteries and heart tissue in 44 of the mummies and observed calcification -- a clear sign of hardening of the arteries that is also seen in modern patients -- in nearly half of them. That included 20% of those who had died before the age of 40 and 60% of those who were older than 40 when they died. In the younger patients, the team typically observed calcification in only one major blood vessel, while in the older ones they found it in multiple vessels. In some, they found signs of calcification in the brain as well.

The most ancient mummy with hardening of the arteries was a princess whose name was thought to be Ahmose-Meyret-Anon, who lived between about 1580 and 1550 BC. "This is the first known case of atherosclerosis in arteries of the heart," Thomas said.

The Egyptians ate more fruit and vegetables and less meat than we do and their meat was leaner. They also led a more active lifestyle and were not thought to have smoked. Given that they developed atherosclerosis anyway, Thomas said, it becomes even more important to take measures to forestall development of the disease as long as possible, including stopping smoking, eating less red meat and losing weight.

The study was published online Sunday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Cardiovascular Imaging and will appear in the April print edition.

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