WASHINGTON DC / Smithsonian Magazine / Science Blogs / May 19, 2011
Ancient Egyptian Princess Had Coronary Heart Disease
A mummified princess from Thebes (known as Luxor during her time)
is the earliest person known to have had coronary heart disease
(Courtesy of flickr user Rita Willaert)
You might be under the impression that hardening of the arteries, a.k.a. atherosclerosis, is a modern problem. That our diets, rich in animal fats and processed foods, are the problem, and if we only ate like humans used to not so long ago, we’d have no need for bypass surgeries and no one would ever die of a heart attack.
But atherosclerosis is common in Egyptian mummies, say scientists who imaged dozens in Egypt, going as far back as 1550 B.C. (Their study, recently published in the journal Cardiovascular Imaging, was presented at the International Conference of Non-Invasive Cardiovascular Imaging earlier this week.)
The researchers created CT scans of 52 ancient Egyptian mummies at the National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo (the mummies couldn’t leave, so the scans were done at the museum). They could see arteries in 44 of the mummies. Of those, 20 had calcification, a marker for atherosclerosis, in their arteries, and in three of the mummies that calcification could be seen in coronary arteries.
Calcification in the right (RCA) and left (LCA) coronary arteries appears white in this CT scan
(Courtesy of the European Society of Cardiology)
At the time when the princess lived, the Egyptian diet consisted of fruit and vegetables, bread, beer and a little domesticated, lean meat, which may sound like a doctor’s recommendation for how to avoid the very problem the princess had. So how did her arteries end up with so much calcification? The researchers have a couple of theories.
Parasitic infections were common in ancient Egypt, and the resulting inflammatory response may have predisposed her body to atherosclerosis, much as HIV appears to do so today. Foods during that time were often preserved in salt, which could have had an adverse effect.
Or the princess may have eaten a different diet than the average Egyptian; as a royal, she could have feasted on luxury foods like meat, cheese and butter, the very items that heart doctors tell us to avoid.
Sarah Zielinski — Archaeology,The Human Body