Egyptian Antiquities Commission

Medical history. An Egyptian mummy moments before a CT scan and a mummy heart with calcium buildup (inset), a sign of heart disease.

Curse of the Mummy? Could be Heart Disease

Pharaohs and their followers were revered as something close to gods, but their hearts were all too human. Cardiologists and Egyptologists have discovered strong evidence of cardiovascular disease in mummies dating as far back as 1530 B.C.E., indicating that heart troubles are not just a curse of modern humans.

Poor people in Egypt were not mummified, so the mummies came from the elite caste of Egyptian society, including people such as royal nursemaids, high priests, and children of royalty. The elites ate salted fish, bread, and cheese like everyone else, but they also dined on rich foods such as cow, sheep, and goat meat, as well as honey and cakes with butter, says Abdel Nureldin, a professor of Egyptology at Cairo University, who worked on the investigation. At the same time, virtually no one in ancient times was sedentary, and that may have helped counteract their fatty diets. "We know a lot about Egyptian architecture, religion, art, but we don't know a lot about medicine in ancient Egypt" or how widespread diseases were, says Nureldin.

The cardiologists examined the mummies in a computed tomography (CT) scanner, which takes x-rays from multiple angles and forms a composite image. Because mummification often involved removing the heart, the researchers mostly had to examine the mummies' arteries (though hearts did survive in a few). In cases were the vessels had deteriorated, they traced the tracks along which the arteries ran inside the body, looking for leftover deposits. They compared the mummy scans with those of modern heart disease patients to rule out the potential effects of embalming.

The team found a buildup of calcium gunk, a common sign of heart disease, in nine out of 16 mummies, including seven of the eight who survived past the age of 45. Both sexes were affected, with four out of seven women and five out of nine men showing signs. Although the scientists could not determine with a CT scan whether any of the mummies died of heart trouble, the historical range of the mummies, which spanned up to 18 centuries, indicates that cardiovascular disease was not limited to one kingdom or dynasty. The team reports its findings today at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association in Orlando, Florida, and also in the 18 November issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Scientists have dissected mummies to look for diseases before--including leprosy, arthritis, and heart disease--but they have never studied so many at once, and never with modern, nondestructive imaging techniques.

The work shows that, given the right environment, people have always been susceptible to heart trouble, says co-author Samuel Wann, a cardiologist at Wheaton Franciscan - The Wisconsin Heart Hospital in Milwaukee. "I would have thought that atherosclerosis was a disease of modern man, not something that affected people in the time of Moses," he says. "It throws out a lot of old myths about how we're going to pot because of our modern lifestyle," adds Sandra Olsen, curator of anthropology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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