Mummies reveal Ancient Egyptian heart disease epidemic

Although Egyptian hieroglyphics depict a noble class that was forever beautiful and healthy, ancient records tell a far different story, of an aristocracy riddled with heart disease. And now preserved mummy hearts are revealing the full extent of the phenomenon.

Egyptian doctors left papyrus records of the basic symptoms of angina, heart attacks, and congestive heart failure going as far back as 1500 BCE. Of course, these were all individual, anecdotal accounts, so there was no way of knowing just how much a problem heart disease really was in ancient Egypt. Researchers decided to tackle this problem head-on by performing CT scans on the hearts of 52 mummies.

Of these, 44 mummies still possessed cardiovascular tissue that was well enough preserved to undergo further analysis. And, in turn, 45% of the mummies tested revealed definite or probable signs of atherosclerosis, which is the hardening of the arteries that ultimately can lead to strokes and heart attacks. That's a very high percentage, as radiologist and team member James Sutherland explains:

"We were a bit surprised by how just how much atherosclerosis we found on ancient Egyptians who were young. The average age of death was around 40."

In modern times, there are four main risk factors for heart disease: smoking, overeating, not getting enough exercise, and genetics. Heiroglyphics tell us that wealthy Egyptians enjoyed some pretty fatty foods, and we can assume genetics also played a role. But there's no evidence (cocaine mummies aside) that Egyptians smoked tobacco, and it's hard to imagine how even the laziest Egyptian could avoid exercise in a time before automobiles or other technology.

This has led the researchers to consider additional risk factors particular to ancient Egypt that might explain such high rates of heart disease. One strong possibility is that harmful bacteria and infectious disease, both of which are known to run rampant in the Nile Valley, could have forced the body to undergo a very strong inflammatory response. While inflammation is excellent in the short term to ward off disease, over the long term sustained high levels can lead to atherosclerosis and other heart problems.

While the ancient heart disease may not be of much help in testing this hypothesis - it's probably too decayed to still hold such microscopic evidence - the researchers hope that CT scans of the mummies' bodies will reveal the extent of chronic infections. If the mummies with known heart problems also have unusually high levels of chronic infections, that would be strong evidence in support of this hypothesis.

Via ScienceNOW.