Feature | April 08, 2011

Egyptian Mummies Show Earliest Cases of Coronary Disease on CT

Proof of heart disease dating back 3,550 years prompts researchers to question whether there is a missing link in understanding this “modern” condition

Calcification in in the aortic bifurcation of an Egyptian mummy.

Annular valve stenosis in the heart of an Egyptian mummy.

Carotid stenosis in an Egyptian mummy.

Coronary stenosis in the heart of an Egyptian mummy.

Peripheral artery disease in an Egyptian mummy.

A U.S.-Egyptian research team has uncovered the earliest documented case of coronary atherosclerosis in a princess who died in her early 40s and lived between 1580 and 1550 B.C. Of the other mummies studied – a sampling of the elite in ancient Egypt – almost half showed evidence of atherosclerosis in one or more of their arteries, calling into question our perception of atherosclerosis as a modern disease, according to research presented this week at the American College of Cardiology (ACC) Scientific Session in New Orleans.

While atherosclerosis has been observed before in ancient Egyptians, this study found it to be more prevalent than previously thought. The interdisciplinary team performed whole body computerized tomography (CT) scans on 52 ancient Egyptian mummies to determine if atherosclerosis was present. Of the 44 with identifiable arteries or hearts, nearly half (45 percent) had calcifications either in the wall of an artery or along the course of an artery that are diagnostic of or highly suggestive of atherosclerosis. “Commonly, we think of coronary artery or heart disease as a consequence of modern lifestyles, mainly because it has increased in developing countries as they become more westernized,” said Gregory S. Thomas, M.D., MPH, clinical professor and director of nuclear cardiology education, University of California, Irvine and the study’s co-principal investigator.

“These data point to a missing link in our understanding of heart disease, and we may not be so different from our ancient ancestors.” Most of the atherosclerosis was found in the large arteries of the body, including the aorta in the abdomen. However, key smaller arteries were also involved. About 7 percent of the mummies had obstructions in the heart arteries, and 14 percent had blockages in the arteries to the brain, the carotid arteries, which is a leading cause of stroke in the present day. Researchers also found that, similar to now, advancing age was highly predictive of the presence and severity of atherosclerosis.

Thomas explains that the calcific atherosclerosis seen with CT scanning looks just like the atherosclerosis of today and appears in the same locations. While researchers could not determine the exact cause of death in these mummies, symptoms consistent with cardiac chest pain had been described in ancient Egyptian scrolls. In order to understand the lifestyles of ancient Egypt’s elite, the team of researchers worked with Egyptologists to review risk factors that might affect the health of the heart and arteries.

“We suspect, but do not know, that meat, which was certainly leaner at that time, was a smaller part of their diet than ours today,” Thomas said. “We know that Egyptians had an overall better diet, did not smoke cigarettes and were more active – yet they still have the same disease we have. This discovery points to the fact that we don’t understand atherosclerosis and heart disease as well as we think we do.”

Although the findings require further study, Thomas and his co-principal investigator, Adel Allam, M.D., of Al Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt believe these data suggest that genetic factors resulting in atherosclerosis are more important than previously thought. They caution, however, that the genetic factors that may predispose us to the disease are even more compelling reasons to carefully manage risk factors that we have some control over, if not to prevent atherosclerosis, to minimize its impact.

“Recent studies have shown that by not smoking, having a lower blood pressure and a lower cholesterol level, calcification of our arteries is delayed,” said Allam. “On the other hand, from what we can tell from this study, humans are predisposed to atherosclerosis, so it behooves us to take the proper measures necessary to delay it as long as we can.”

Mummies were preserved by going through a 70-day sterilization and dehydration process using natron, a mixture of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium sulfate and sodium chloride, which allows the bodies to be recognizable and studied 3,500 or more years later. The study was funded by the National Bank of Egypt, Siemens and the St. Luke’s Hospital Foundation. Cardiology co-investigators include: doctors. Randall Thompson of the St. Luke’s Mid-America Heart Institute, Kansas City, Mo.; Sam Wann of the Wisconsin Heart Hospital, Milwaukee, Wis.; and Michael I. Miyamoto of the Mission Internal Medical Group, Mission Viejo, Calif.

This study is published in print and online in the JACC: Cardiovascular Imaging April 2011 edition.

Related Content

smartphones, hospital tranfers, heart attack patients, JACC study, South Korea
News | Mobile Devices| September 23, 2016
Smartphone communication among medical teams at different hospitals can significantly reduce the time it takes for...
Robert M. Califf, FDA commissioner, future of cardiovascular medicine, JACC column
News | Business| September 23, 2016
Technology advances coupled with increased use of social media and personal devices could offer new possibilities for...
Medtronic, In.Pact Admiral drug-coated balloon, trial data, VIVA
News | Drug-Eluting Balloons| September 22, 2016
New data presented at the Vascular Interventional Advances (VIVA) conference demonstrated the durability, consistency...
4Tech, TriCinch TTVR, transcather tricuspid valve repair device, first implant
News | Heart Valve Technology| September 22, 2016
4Tech Inc. announced that its TriCinch device has been used in the world’s first-ever successful transcatheter...
Transesophageal Echo, TEE. Interventional echocardiography, interventional echo, Philips, CX50

Transesophageal echo (TEE) has become an essential part of the new transcatheter structrual heart therapies, giving rise to a new sub-speciality of interventional echocardiography.  

Feature | Cath Lab Navigation Aids| September 21, 2016 | Dave Fornell
The rapid growth of transcatheter structural heart procedures and the need for increased use of echocardiography as a
Sponsored Content | Videos | Inventory Management| September 21, 2016
With bundled payments putting increased pressure on hospitals to manage supply costs while providing quality patient
Claret Medical, Sentinal CPS, cerebral protection system, FDA marketing application, TAVR, embolic protection
News | Embolic Protection Devices| September 20, 2016
Claret Medical announced its filing of a marketing application with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for...
Teleflex, AVA 2016 Congress, Association for Vascular Access
News | Vascular Access| September 20, 2016
September 20, 2016 — Teleflex Inc.
Edwards sapien, intermediate risk patients, CE mark
News | Heart Valve Technology| September 20, 2016
September 19, 2016 — Edwards Lifesciences received European CE mark to expand use of the Edwards Sapien 3 transcathet
Shockwave medical, lithoplasty
News | Cath Lab| September 19, 2016
September 19, 2016 — Shockwave Medical announced positive clinical results from the pooled DISRUPT PAD Study, a singl
Overlay Init