Hardening of the arteries has been detected in 3,500-year-old mummies, so we may have to look beyond modern risk factors to fully understand heart disease, according to research presented American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2009.
Although atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease is commonly ascribed to modern risk factors, this study found evidence of the disease which causes heart attacks and strokes in ancient Egyptian mummies.
The study, presented by Randall C. Thompson, M.D., professor of medicine at the Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, was conducted by a unique collaboration of imaging experts, Egyptologists and preservationists who sought the most direct evidence possible. Using six-slice computed X-ray tomography (CT) scans, they systematically examined 20 mummies housed in the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, Egypt to see if heart and blood vessel tissue was present and to learn its condition.
The mummies dated from 1981 B.C. to 364 A.D. Social status could be determined for most of them - all were of high social status. The researchers found evidence of blood vessels or heart tissue in 13 of the mummies, and in four they could see an intact heart. Definite atherosclerosis, in other words a build-up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances in the inner walls of blood vessels, was present in three and probable atherosclerosis in an additional three. Calcification was significantly more common in the mummies estimated to be 45 years or older at the time of death. Researchers found no difference in calcification between men and women. The most ancient mummy with findings diagnostic of atherosclerosis died approximately 1530 to 1570 B.C.
The investigators concluded that atherosclerosis is not only a disease of modern man, but was present and not unusual in humans living 3000 years ago.