Heart Disease Discovered in Mummy Remains

Michael Miyamoto, a doctor at the UCSD School of Medicine, journeyed to Cairo, Egypt in February 2009 as part of a team of scientists that analyzed the remains of 22 mummies taken from the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities. The mummies dated from 1981 B.C. to A.D. 334 and, on average, were age 45 when they died.

“The mummies were selected based on how well preserved they were, carried to trailers around the rear of the museum and then later collected and reviewed [for] information,” Miyamoto said.

Using computed axial tomography scans, the team discovered that 16 of the 22 mummies showed the presence of calcium within the soft tissues deposited in blood vessels. Nine of the 16 had blood vessels containing calcified plaque, which is a indicator of a form of heart disease now known as atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. However, the presence of plaque was not discovered within the major coronary arteries such as the aorta.

The finding disproved the prior notion that heart disease was purely the result of activities such as smoking and an unhealthy lifestyle. The discovery of heart disease in ancient remains opens the possibility that humans have a genetic predisposition for heart disease, although Miyamoto said that an unhealthy lifestyle may still have contributed to the atherosclerosis.

“Unhealthy lifestyle may have been an indicator of the heart disease since people who could afford to be mummified typically had high socioeconomic status,” Miyamoto said. “They were people who worked in the courts, priests [and] other high places and they likely had a much more calorie-rich diet which included salt and meat.”

Despite the relatively small sample size, heart disease was not uncommon. The presence of atherosclerosis was detected in both sexes within the designated age range. Miyamoto said it was difficult to estimate the level of atherosclerosis in relation to modern humans since the levels varied widely, but that the basic vascular appearance was very similar.

Miyamoto stressed that although genetic predisposition may be a factor contributing to heart disease, the discovery does not give people license to ignore the positive effects created by a healthy lifestyle.

“It’s very important for doctors to take this information and say that yes, we may be predestined, but environment is equally powerful and we need to make positive changes to ensure our health,” Miyamoto said.

He emphasized the importance of lifestyle changes — such as quitting smoking and eating a low-fat diet — in fighting heart disease.

“We don’t want people to look at this discoery and have a fatalistic attitude,” he said. “In fact, we want it to be the opposite: tell patients that have these dispositions [that] we have to concentrate on what we can do to optimize lifestyle choices to extend life. We can still change our risk of heart disease.”

The team members plan to return to Cairo later this year in order to study mummies from lower socioeconomic classes to determine if hardening of the arteries is present in that demographic as well, as well as to discover if it is present in coronary arteries.

Readers can contact Angela Chen at [email protected].

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