Atherosclerosis thrived in antiquity, mummy scans show

January 25, 2010
H.A. Abella

Diagnostic Imaging, Diagnostic Imaging Vol 32 No 1, Volume 32, Issue 1

A study by U.S. and Egyptian researchers has challenged the conventional wisdom regarding cardiovascular disease.

A study by U.S. and Egyptian researchers has challenged the conventional wisdom regarding cardiovascular disease. Using CT, the investigators found evidence that, unlike other chronic conditions that plague affluent postindustrial Western societies, atherosclerosis has been around since at least the time of the ancient pharaohs.

“Some of the patients I have mentioned the study to have had a certain sense of relief,” lead investigator Dr. Randall Thompson told Diagnostic Imaging. “They were blaming themselves for having had a heart attack and were happy to learn that the disease has been around since the time of Moses.”

Thompson and colleagues sought evidence of arterial disease in individuals who lived three millennia or longer ago. They performed whole-body multislice CT scans on 22 mummies preserved in the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. The investigators found evidence of atherosclerosis of the abdominal or thoracic aorta or peripheral arteries in nine of 16 mummies with visible cardiovascular tissue. This included seven subjects who were 45 or older and two who were younger than 45 when they died. Findings appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study lacks a direct pathological correlation and the power to explain the prevalence or severity of atherosclerosis in the distant past. However, it does provide proof that ancient Egyptians belonging to the upper social strata who were middle-aged or older already faced a genetic and environmental predisposition to develop the condition, said Thompson, a cardiologist at St. Luke's Hospital's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, MO.

“The findings challenge the concept that this is primarily a disease of Western lifestyles,” he said.