A team of researchers has discovered evidence of hardened arteries in nine of sixteen Egyptian mummies, according to the November 18th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Doctors studied the cardiovascular health of mummies housed at the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo.
Dr. Randall Thompson and colleagues used CT scans to view vascular calcification (sign of atherosclerosis) in Egyptian mummies dating from 1981 B.C. to 334 A.D. All of the mummies studied were of high socioeconomic status and many were connected with the Pharaoh’s court.¹ What could these ancient, wealthy people have done to give them arteries similar to those of modern Americans?
It would be very interesting to know details about the diet and lifestyle of these relatively affluent Egyptians. Perhaps there were aspects of upper class living that influenced their heart health. Or, maybe there was some behavior that cut across all classes that predisposed that culture to develop heart disease. It is not known what diet these people who became mummies followed, nor is it known how much they weighed, because mummies are dehydrated. Unfortunately, we can only guess at risk factors:
Cattle, ducks and geese were commonly consumed during those times.² I don’t buy into the saturated fat/heart disease link, but who is to say that the people studied didn’t consume extra large quantities of food? Obesity itself could have led to metabolic syndrome and, in turn, heart disease. For an incredibly in-depth analysis that debunks the link between fat and coronary heart disease, read Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories.
Salt was also available,³ and could potentially have led to unchecked hypertension, which damages artery walls.
Was a high status life particularly stressful?
If I had to guess, I would bet that the people studied had a diet high in carbohydrate, which in turn elevated blood sugar and then led to chronically high insulin levels. Just a guess, but with access to wheat growing along the fertile banks of the Nile, a diet high in bread and fruit (dates and figs), wine and beer could very well have contributed to the formation of arterial plaque. See Dr. Davis’ Heart Scan Blog for great discussions about the dangers of wheat.
That’s enough guessing for now. Perhaps the secret cause of heart disease in ancient Egyptians followed them to their sarcophagi.
1. Computed Tomographic Assessment of Atherosclerosis in Ancient Egyptian Mummies. Allam et al. JAMA. 2009; 302: 2091-2094.