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Apr 19, 2011

Did Mummies Have Heart Disease Too?

Heart disease was common in Ancient Egypt, possibly due to genes and poor diet.

As rates for cardiovascular disease increase among the US population, we tend to attribute this adverse trend to the modern lifestyle – unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, and high levels of stress. But is it possible that heart disease affected humans long before televisions, cars, and fast food?

A recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that not only did ancient Egyptian mummies have atherosclerosis cardiovascular disease, but that it was actually common in the earliest of populations. In this study, researchers performed scans on 52 ancient Egyptian mummies living during a time span of over 2,000 years. Through the use of imaging, researchers were able to look at the hearts of mummies and identify calcifications in the arteries, also known as atherosclerosis. Of the 52 mummies in this study, 44 had identifiable heart structures, 20 of which had definite or probably atherosclerosis. Mummies identified with atherosclerosis appeared to be an average of ten years older at the time of death than those without.

Based on these findings, atherosclerosis was common in humans living in Ancient Egypt. In fact, this study identified the oldest person known to have heart disease – a princess living between 1550 and 1580 BCE. It is hypothesized that these high rates of cardiovascular disease may be a result of diet and biological predispositions intrinsic to humans. With frequent physical labor and activity, those living in Ancient Egypt were likely very fit, but poor diet may have contributed to the build up of plaque in the arteries. These findings not only provide insight into the cardiovascular health of humans living thousands years ago, but they also raise interesting questions about the impact of certain risk factors for heart disease that may be unchangeable.  

Questions for You to Consider

  • How old were the mummies with atherosclerosis?

  • The mean age at time of death for the 20 mummies with definite or probable atherosclerosis was 45.1 years old. In comparison, mummies without atherosclerosis were 34.5 years old, on average, at the time of death. This discovery raises interesting questions about the impact of age on the development of cardiovascular disease.
  • How were the hearts of the mummies examined?

  • An advanced process known as mutislice computed tomography scanning was used on the mummies to identify the heart and analyze the arteries. The age of mummies was determined by similar computed tomography performed on the skeleton. Images collected were interpreted by professionals to assess the age and cardiovascular health of the mummies.

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