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Updated: November 19, 2009 03:07 IST

Egypt's unknown plague

Ian Sample
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The mummified remains of Djeher, who lived in the Ptolemaic Era (304-30 BC), enters a CT scanner.
AP The mummified remains of Djeher, who lived in the Ptolemaic Era (304-30 BC), enters a CT scanner.

Heart disease was rife among affluent ancient Egyptians suggesting there may be more to heart disease than bad diet and smoking.

Heart disease plagued human society long before fry-ups and cigarettes, researchers have said. Ancient Egypt's upper classes were riddled with cardiovascular disease that raised their risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Doctors made the discovery after taking hospital x-ray scans of 20 Egyptian mummies that date back 3,500 years.

The scans revealed signs of atherosclerosis, a life-threatening condition where fat and calcium build up in the arteries, clogging them and stiffening their walls.

On a visit to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, one of the researchers had been intrigued by a nameplate on the remains of Pharaoh Merenptah, who died in 1203 BC. The plate said the pharaoh died aged 60 and suffered diseased arteries, arthritis and tooth decay.

American and Egyptian experts got permission to examine the mummified pharaoh and others on display or stored in the museum's basement.

Despite their extraordinary age, 16 mummies had identifiable hearts and arteries. Of these, nine showed evidence of atherosclerosis. Hard calcified deposits were seen either in the walls of arteries or along the path an artery would have taken. In some individuals up to six different arteries were affected.

The most ancient mummy afflicted with heart disease was the maid of Queen Ahmose Nefertiti, Lady Rai, who lived around 200 years before the time of King Tutankhamun.

She is thought to have been between 30 and 40 years old when she died in 1530BC.

Gregory Thomas at the University of California at Irvine said: "The findings suggest that we may have to look beyond modern risk factors to fully understand the disease."

The findings were announced at a meeting of the American Heart Association in Orlando and are published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. - © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

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