Modern-day malady curses ancient mummies

The Kansas City StarApril 4, 2011 

She didn’t smoke. Never ate a double bacon cheeseburger. Never sacked out on the couch watching cable. Yet by the time she reached her early 40s, she was a candidate for a heart attack.

That was nearly 3,600 years ago.

Princess Ahmose-Meryet-Amon of Egypt’s 17th Dynasty had the world’s oldest known case of coronary heart disease, researchers say.

Atherosclerosis — commonly called hardening of the arteries — was surprisingly widespread in ancient times, at least among the Egyptian mummies examined by an international team of scientists and heart specialists, including one from St. Luke’s Hospital.

Their research, presented Sunday in New Orleans at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology, found that 45 percent of the mummies they put through CT scans had signs of atherosclerosis.

That raises questions about whether hardening of the arteries is the disease of modern civilization that we thought it was.

“We found it so easily and frequently that it appears to have been common in this society,” said Randall Thompson, a St. Luke’s cardiologist.

“It was so common we have to wonder, are we missing something? Maybe we don’t understand atherosclerosis as well as we think. Maybe there’s a missing risk factor we haven’t found yet.”

Thompson and the other researchers performed CT scans on 52 mummies, mostly from the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. It was the largest number of mummies ever assembled for such a study.

Among the 44 mummies with hearts or identifiable blood vessels, 20 probably or definitely had atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis occurs when fatty material collects along artery walls. As this material thickens and hardens, it may block the arteries.

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