An Egyptian princess who lived more than 3,500 years ago is the oldest known person to have had clogged arteries, dispelling the myth that heart disease is a product of modern society, a new study says.
To determine how common heart disease was in ancient Egypt, scientists performed computer scans on 52 mummies in Cairo and the United States. Among those that still had heart tissue, 44 had chunks of calcium stuck to their arteries — indicating clogging.
"Atherosclerosis clearly existed more than 3,000 years ago," said Adel Allam, a cardiology professor at Al Azhar University in Cairo, who led the study with Gregory Thomas, director of nuclear cardiology education at the University of California in Irvine. "We cannot blame this disease on modern civilization."
The research was presented Tuesday at a conference on heart imaging in Amsterdam.
Allam and colleagues found the Egyptian princess Ahmose-Meryet-Amon, who lived in Thebes (now Luxor) between 1540 and 1550 BC, had calcium deposits in two main coronary arteries, making her the oldest mummy found with heart disease. The princess' father and brother were both pharaohs. The mummy had pierced ears and a large incision in her left side made by embalmers to remove her internal organs.
Allam doubted she would have received much treatment beyond maybe taking special herbs or honey.
"If she were my patient today, she would get open heart surgery," he said. He added that the princess's clogged arteries looked remarkably similar to heart disease in contemporary Egyptians. The 43 younger mummies with calcium deposits showed a range of heart and artery problems.
'If she were my patient today, she would get open heart surgery.'—Adel Allam, cardiology professor
Experts say that during the princess's lifetime, beef, pork, mutton, antelope, duck and other meats were readily available in the royal courts. Egyptians didn't eat much fish but ate many different kinds of fruits and vegetables. Salt was also likely used to preserve their food.
Joep Perk, a professor of health sciences at Linnaeus University in Sweden and a spokesman for the European Society of Cardiology, said the heart disease discovered in the mummies was probably due to the rich diet and lack of exercise among the Egyptian elite. He was not linked to the mummy research.
"The pharaohs and other royalty probably had more fat in their diet than the average Egyptian," he said. "The sculptures and hieroglyphs may show people who were very thin and beautiful, but the reality may have been different."
He added there may have been other factors, like the stress of holding onto power and genetic factors that could have made the Egyptian ruling class more susceptible to heart disease.
He said Egyptian royals were more likely to be killed by heart problems after surviving other infections that would have killed poorer Egyptians. "They simply had the good luck to live long enough to develop heart disease."