Egyptian Mummies Had Clogged Arteries

Baines said paintings of people in ancient Egypt show the society was just as conflicted about body image ideals, health and wealth as modern Western society.

"Depending on the period, you can look and see there was a body ideal of being slim, especially for women. If you're a man you should be muscular, but slim, and if you're a woman you should be quite slim," Baines said.

At the same time, Baines said, many rich men would be portrayed as thin in some paintings and portly in others.

"You do also have a prosperous fat idea for men, but it was absent for women," he said. "That being fat means you are successful, and prosperous, and so you could afford to eat."

With so many pictures of servants carrying the elite, or offering them lavish displays of meat, Baines said he wasn't surprised at all that rich ancient Egyptians had heart disease.

Allam also pointed out another risk factor in the ancient Egyptians' meals that also plagues modern people's diets: salt.

"Because there were no refrigerators, they used a lot of salt," Allam said. "They used to salt the meat and the fish to keep it a long time, and this led to an increase in high blood pressure."

While the bad diets weren't a surprising link to heart disease in ancient Egypt, Allam and other doctors said they were shocked by how much plaque must have built up in these Egyptians even before their 50th birthday.

Even Young Egyptians Had Heart Disease

Baines said ancient Egyptians lived "not very long, that would be the basic view," even if someone was in the higher classes and could avoid malnourishment and some diseases that plagued the poor.

"The average life expectancy was extremely low," Baines said. For example, he said, often a group of wealthy people would be buried together "and sometimes age of death is given, and they died in their 20s. They are members of the elite because they got little inscriptions saying the age."

Indeed, the oldest mummy examined by the researchers with a CT scan only reached age 45. Allam said the degree of plaque in mummies who didn't smoke and didn't have as much access to bad foods as the modern person should be a huge wake-up call to people living today.

"Despite our efforts to reduce smoking and improve our diet and increase exercise, our risk factor profile is considerably worse than the ancient Egyptians -- and they had coronary artery disease in their 30s," said Dr. James Januzzi, director of the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard University.

"I suspect that if you scanned the same 22 adults in our modern culture I think you'd find similar results," Januzzi said.

Januzzi said he often sees people in their 30s come into his office with plaque, or worse, after having suffered a heart attack. Although he's noticed people this age like to think they are "indestructible," he said, they too should try to eat right, exercise or even see a doctor about blood pressure medication if necessary.

"You're never too young to begin the preventive steps to avoid a cardiac event," he said.

Dr. Sidney Smith of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill agreed.

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