Rich Egyptians living 3,500 years ago may have been walking around with the same clogged arteries that modern Americans now battle, according to a presentation Monday at the American Heart Association's annual meeting.
A group of scientists said that, on a whim, they performed a computerized tomography (CT) scan on a collection of 22 mummies housed at the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo to see if they too suffered from the plaque build-up in arteries that lead to coronary artery disease.
"We didn't believe it was going to be so intense," said Adel H. Allam, the lead author of a letter to the editor published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "We thought that we would find it, but maybe very rarely, and we thought that if we did find it, it wouldn't be so severe."
The plaque was, of course, long gone. The mummies lived between 1981 B.C. and 364 A.D., and only 16 of the mummies had heart tissue left. However, doctors could see evidence of advanced atherosclerosis (plaque build-up that causes hardening of the arteries) by looking for calcium deposits in a CT scan used to diagnose people today.
Six of the ancient Egyptians likely had atherosclerosis, and four more ancient Egyptians had enough tissue left for the doctors to diagnose them with coronary artery disease.
The oldest mummy to be diagnosed was Lady Rai, a nursemaid of the queen who lived between 1570 and 1530 B.C. and likely died in her 30s.
These same calcium deposits that affected Lady Rai are rare among most of the world's population, but can be found in a large fraction of people in the richest nations today.
"By 45 years old about a quarter of the male population [in the U.S>] has some calcifications in their arteries. When women make it to 55 it's about a quarter of them," said Dr. Jon Keevil, associate professor in the department of medicine and radiology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine in Madison.
Keevil explained that when enough plaque builds up in arteries and stays there for a long enough period of time, the artery becomes inflamed and the body lays down calcium deposits in reaction. Typically it takes years of plaque build-up to start calcifications.
"We can say it was severe because we saw it in many of the arteries and this was enough proof to say it was extensive," said Allam, of the Al Azhar Medical School in Cairo.
Allam couldn't say whether the mummies died from heart disease, but he has seen evidence in ancient Egyptian writings that hint that people then had chest pains and heart trouble like we do.
"In some of the papyrus, we discovered that actually the priests gave a good description of chest pain, of angina," Allam said. "If angina has been described 3,500 years ago by the priests -- the people who were taking care of the people at the time -- then probably the disease did exist."
Given what Egyptologists know about the diet of the Egyptian elite, the only people rich enough to afford the labor-intensive mummification process, many cardiologists aren't surprised that they had clogged arteries.
"You should assume that the ancient Egyptian elite lived as well as they could, they would have eaten meat and drank beer, too," said John Baines, professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford, England.