Mummies Had Heart Disease, Too

Finding Suggests Hardened Arteries Is Not a Disease of Modern Lifestyles

By Charlene Laino
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 17, 2009 (Orlando, Fla.) -- For years, doctors have blamed fast food, lack of exercise, smoking, and other detrimental lifestyle factors of modern life for our predisposition to heart disease.

But now, hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, has been detected in 3,500-year-old mummies, challenging that view.

"What our new findings tells us," says researcher Gregory Thomas, MD, "is that atherosclerosis has been around since before the times of Moses."

"Atherosclerosis is not just a disease of modern times," says Thomas, a cardiologist at the University of California at Irvine. "It's part of the human condition. We have to look beyond modern risk factors to fully understand heart disease."

The research was presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2009 and simultaneously published online in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Atherosclerosis Common in Mummies

For the study, the researchers used CT scans to examine 22 mummies, aged 20 to 60 at the time of death, housed in the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, Egypt. The mummies dated from 1981 B.C. to 364 A.D.

The CT images showed evidence of blood vessels in 16 of the mummies. They were then examined further for the buildup of calcium in the inner walls of blood vessels, which is considered diagnostic of atherosclerosis.

"Our hypothesis was that they would not have calcification, which proved untrue," Thomas says.

Definite atherosclerosis was present in five of the 16 mummies and probable atherosclerosis in four.

Calcification was significantly more common in the mummies estimated to be 45 or older at the time of death, he says.

Specifically, calcification was present in seven of the eight mummies aged 45 or older at time of death, compared with two of eight who were estimated to have died at a younger age. Men and women were equally likely to have atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis vs. Lifestyle

Thomas says the research has several important implications. "Since atherosclerosis is so ubiquitous, we should be treating people earlier, starting at about age 30."

And lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthy diet or exercising more, won't do the job, Thomas says. "Egyptians did not smoke or eat processed foods, and presumably they did not live sedentary lives. The only thing we know to be effective is lipid-lowering drug therapy."

Past AHA President Sidney Smith, MD, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, disagrees.

"My understanding is that only the upper class could be mummified, so I don't think we can extrapolate evidence in mummies to the entire population [of people living at that time]."

"I wouldn't be surprised if the people who were mummified ate rich diets and had sedentary lifestyles. In my view, the findings are consistent with what we know -- that is, lifestyle factors can contribute to atherosclerosis and heart disease," Smith tells WebMD.

His advice to prevent heart disease: Quit smoking, exercise, and eat a heart-healthy diet.

Thomas says if lifestyle is not to blame, the findings also suggest that there may be an as yet undiscovered cause of atherosclerosis. "For example, for years we thought that ulcers were caused by stress, and then we found out the bacteria Helicobacter pylori may play a role. So we could be missing some causative factor here."

The study was funded by Siemens, the National Bank of Egypt, and the Mid-America Heart Institute.

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SOURCES: American Heart Association Scientific Sessions 2009, Orlando, Fla., Nov. 15-19, 2009.

Holly M. Ippisch, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Stephen Daniels, MD, PhD, chairman of pediatrics, University of Colorado, Denver.

David Crowley, MD, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

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