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Updated: January 23, 2010 19:08 IST

Egyptians suffered heart attacks 3,500 years ago

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A visitor looking at an Egyptian mummy kept in the State museum at Public Gardens in Hyderabad. File Photo: Mohammed Yousuf
THE HINDU
A visitor looking at an Egyptian mummy kept in the State museum at Public Gardens in Hyderabad. File Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

Ancient Egyptian mummies, some as old as 3,500 years, showed hardening of arteries, suggesting that heart attacks and stroke afflicted the ancients too.

“Atherosclerosis, despite differences in ancient and modern lifestyles, was rather common in ancient Egyptians of high socio-economic status living,” says Gregory Thomas, clinical professor of cardiology at the University of California-Irvine (UCI).

“The findings suggest that we may have to look beyond modern risk factors to fully understand the disease,” said Thomas, principal study co-investigator.

The nameplate of the Pharaoh Merenptah (1213-1203 BC), in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities reads that, when he died at 60 years, he was afflicted with atherosclerosis, arthritis, and dental decay.

Intrigued, Thomas and a team of US and Egyptian cardiologists, joined by experts in Egyptology and preservation, selected 20 mummies at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities for scanning on a Siemens 6 slice CT scanner during February.

The mummies underwent whole body scanning with special attention to the cardiovascular system, said an UCI release.

The researchers found that nine of the 16 mummies who had identifiable arteries or hearts left in their bodies after the mummification process had calcification either clearly seen in the wall of the artery or in the path were the artery should have been. Some mummies had calcification in up to 6 different arteries.

Using skeletal analysis, the Egyptology and preservationist team was able to estimate the age at death for all the mummies and the names and occupations in the majority.

Of the mummies who had died when they were older than 45, seven of eight had calcification and thus atherosclerosis while only two of eight dying at an earlier age had calcification.

Atherosclerosis did not spare women; vascular calcifications were observed in both male and female mummies, said an UCI release.

The most ancient Egyptian afflicted with atherosclerosis was Lady Rai, who lived to an estimated age of 30 to 40 years around 1530 BC and had been the nursemaid to Queen Ahmose Nefertiti.

To put this in context, Lady Rai lived about 300 years prior to the time of Moses and 200 prior to King Tutankhamun (Tut).

These findings appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).


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