Scientists Uncover the First Case of Hardened Arteries in a Mummy

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Kenneth Garrett / National Geographic via Getty Images

It’s widely known that atherosclerosis — the hardening of the arteries that contributes to heart attack — is caused by our modern lifestyle: how many of us sit sedentary at our desks all day, eating fat-laden fast-food diets, getting up now and again only to take a cigarette break? But a new study of Egyptian mummies reveals that ancient people had hardened arteries too, leading scientists to wonder whether the condition may be coded into our genes.

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, conducted CT scans of 52 mummies dating to between 1981 BC and AD 364, and were able to identify heart tissue and arteries in 44 of them. The scans revealed that almost half of those mummies showed calcification of the arteries — a sign of plaque buildup that is associated with heart disease.

An analysis conducted last year by the same research team, led by Dr. Gregory S. Thomas, a cardiologist at U.C. Irvine, found that nine of 16 mummies had the same calcifications. What’s different about the larger study is the age of the mummies at death. Eight of the nine mummies with atherosclerosis in the original study were older than 45 — considered elderly at the time — when they died.

In the new study, 60% of the atherosclerotic mummies were older than 40 at death, but a full 20% had died before the age of 40. Reported the Los Angeles Times:

In the younger patients, the team typically observed calcification in only one major blood vessel, while in the older ones they found it in multiple vessels. In some, they found signs of calcification in the brain as well.

The most ancient mummy with hardening of the arteries was a princess whose name was thought to be Ahmose-Meyret-Anon, who lived between about 1580 and 1550 BC. “This is the first known case of atherosclerosis in arteries of the heart,” Thomas said.

Ancient Egyptians were more active than modern humans. They ate a lot more fruits and veggies and leaner meats, and they’re not believed to have smoked. But the fact that they had signs of hardened arteries anyway suggests that people may be “predisposed to atherosclerosis,” said Thomas at the meeting of the American College of Cardiology in New Orleans.

That’s no excuse to throw in the towel. Rather, said Thomas, the findings suggest that it may be even more important than doctors thought for people to exercise, eat right and quit smoking to reduce their risk of heart disease.

The new study was published online by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Cardiovascular Imaging.