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Ancient Egyptians Suffered From Hardened Arteries

In the good old days, millennia ago, people living along the Nile ate right, didn't get fat sitting in freeway traffic and had nothing to fear from the modern health scourge heart disease. Right?

Big arrow points to calcification in a leg artery of a mummified Egyptian woman who lived in the 18t

Big arrow points to calcification in a leg artery of a mummified Egyptian woman who lived in the 18th dynasty. (c) 2009 JAMA hide caption

itoggle caption (c) 2009 JAMA

Wrong, at least when it comes to heart health. CT scans of 22 Egyptian mummies, several around 3,000 years old, detected significant deposits of calcium in 5 of the 16 mummies with preserved arteries, definitive evidence the people had atherosclerosis while alive. Four other mummies with intact cardiovascular remains had deposits the researchers said probably indicated hardening of the arteries.

The work appears in the current issue of JAMA. We called Egypt and talked with one of the paper's authors Dr. Greg Thomas, a cardiologist whose day jobs include imaging hearts of living people and teaching at University of California, Irvine. He's in Cairo to talk about the results.

The bottom line, he told us, is that heart disease is nothing new. ""Atherosclerosis is endemic to humans in civilization," he said. It's "been around since before the time of Moses. It's part of being human."

The specimens examined were both men and women, ranging in age from about 25 or 30 to older than 60 at the time of death. Social status could be determined for 16. All those individuals were members of the pharaoh's court or were priests or priestesses.

Thomas and his colleagues write in JAMA, "Our findings that atherosclerosis was not infrequent among middle-aged and older ancient Egyptians of high social status challenges the view that it is a disease of modern humans."

Egyptian authorities prohibited the team from scanning pharaohs, Thomas said. The first 10 specimens were selected by Egyptologists. The doctors helped select the rest, even rummaging around the basement of the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities to find them. "It was like Indiana Jones," Thomas said. "It was as cool as you would think it would be."

Next Thomas and his colleagues would like to scan "some lower socioeconomic mummies" to see whether ancient atherosclerosis afflicted only the rich or was commonplace.

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