Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Ancient Egyptians knew the pain of heart disease
The hardening of the arteries associated with heart attacks and strokes is not just a modern phenomenon, according to new research showing ancient Egypt's pharaohs suffered from heart disease too.
"Atherosclerosis is ubiquitous among modern day humans and, despite difference in ancient and modern lifestyles, we found that it was rather common in ancient Egyptians of high socioeconomic status living as much as three millennia ago," said Gregory Thomas, a cardiology professor at the University of California, Irvine.
"The findings suggest that we may have to look beyond modern risk factors to fully understand the disease," added Thomas, one of the co-authors of the study.
The main risk factors that contribute to arterial hardening today are fatty foods, lack of exercise and smoking.
The study was prompted by a nameplate found with the body of the Pharaoh Merenptah, who lived between 1213 and 1203 BC, that gave his age at death at 60 and says he suffered from arthritis, dental decay and atheroscleroris.
Working with Egyptologists and preservation specialists, a team of US and Egyptian cardiologists selected 20 mummies from the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo and scanned them with a CT scanner.
The mummies underwent full body scans with a particular focus on their cardiovascular system.
The process revealed that nine of the 16 mummies with identifiable hearts and arteries showed signs of arterial calcification.
The hardening was visible both inside the arteries and in the paths where the artery should have been found, the researchers said the study published in the Nov. 18 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Some of the mummies had calcification in up to six of their arteries, the authors said.
Based on skeletal analysis, the researchers were able to estimate the ages of most of the mummies at death, and they also gathered the names and occupations of the majority.
Among the mummies that died over the age of 45, seven out of eight had calcification in their arteries and suffered atherosclerosis, the study found.
Only two out of eight of those who died at a younger age showed similar calcification, but the hardening was found in the arteries of both male and female mummies.
Those mummies whose identities could be established by the research team generally came from a high socioeconomic class, with many working as courtiers for the Pharaoh.
The particular diet of each individual could not be determined, but the authors of the study noted that consumption of various cattle, as well as ducks and geese was common at the time.
"While we do not know whether atherosclerosis caused the demise of any of the mummies in the study, we can confirm that the disease was present in many of them," Thomas said.