Published: April 09, 2011
Heart disease is supposedly a modern affliction, the result of a diet rich in animal fat and too many hours spent on the sofa. But recent discoveries suggest that strokes and heart attacks may have been bedeviling humans for millenia.
Dr. Greg Thomas is part of a team of scientists that recently discovered the earliest known case of atherosclerosis — clogged arteries — in ancient Egyptian mummies. The startling findings mean scientists may not understand heart disease as well as they think they do.
Thomas tells Weekend All Things Considered host Linda Wertheimer that his team began by running mummies through a CT scanner.
"Our hypothesis was that they wouldn't have [heart disease], because they were active, their diet was much different, they didn't have tobacco," he says.
But they were wrong.
One of the mummies the team scanned was a princess in her 40s, who presumably ate fresh food and wasn't sedentary. "That she would have atherosclerosis," Thomas says, "I think we're missing a risk factor. Right now we know that high blood pressure, smoking, cholesterol, inactivity and other things cause athersosclerosis, but I think that we're less complete than we think."
Ancient Egyptians did have access to meat, though Thomas says their diet consisted mostly of grains, fruits and vegetables.
The subjects the team studied belonged to an elite class; working people didn't merit mummification. Thomas says the legendary inbreeding of Egypt's royal families probably had little to do with the incidence of heart disease, however.
"We found the atherosclerosis over 2,000 years of time, and so there would be many different families who were the pharaohs or the ruling parties at the time ... We think it's common to the environment there, among the elite."
Thomas says his team hopes to find some less-exalted mummies to scan. "But we're suspicious that even the more middle-class persons, that they may well have had [heart disease]. But that's research to be done." [Copyright 2013 NPR]
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Seventeen million people died of cardiovascular diseases last year alone, and that number is only expected to rise. Heart disease is supposed to be the result of the good living that modern life affords us, a diet rich in animal fat, too many hours spent on the sofa. But recent discoveries suggest that strokes and heart attacks may not just be the scourge of modern society.
Joining us to explain is Dr. Greg Thomas. He is coauthor of a paper in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology Imaging that describes a heart disease among ancient Egyptians, specifically mummies.
Dr. Thomas, welcome.
Dr. GREG THOMAS: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: Now, everything that I know about mummies, I learned in the National Geographic. But as I recall, mummies had all their innards emptied out and stored in canopic jars. So how did you do your research?
Dr. THOMAS: Well, it turns out there's not a canopic jar for the heart. They're for the abdominal organs. And so...
WERTHEIMER: I see.
Dr. THOMAS: ...predominantly, the heart was still there.
WERTHEIMER: And so what did you do?
Dr. THOMAS: We did CT scanning at a scanner that had been donated actually by National Geographic - your teacher - to the Cairo Museum, their national museum, and imaged 52 mummies who had been in their museum. And to our surprise, we found they did have vascular disease, atherosclerosis, in many of their large arteries, and the small arteries of the body that cause events, for example, the arteries in the heart and the arteries to the brain, also had atherosclerosis.
WERTHEIMER: Now, that's a sign of a calcification.
Dr. THOMAS: Right. When we develop atherosclerosis or plaque or harden the arteries, it starts with cholesterol and other cells. And then as it ages, it calcifies, so it kind of ossifies like a bone. So our hypothesis was that the calcium might still be there 3,000 years later to see if they indeed had these blockages.
WERTHEIMER: So you had a lot of mummies to pick from, presumably. How'd you choose them?
Dr. THOMAS: We looked for older mummies. We found, for example, a general. We thought, well, it took some time to be a general. He must be old. And so they were able, actually, to unscrew the glass case and look down the sarcophagus and see someone been there for 3,000 years and then take him out of the sarcophagus and bring him over to scan. And I was just, you know, pinching myself to see how fortunate I was to look inside with a CT scanner and see what was going on.
WERTHEIMER: One of the mummies that you scanned was a princess who had severe atherosclerosis. Now, presumably, this woman was a locavore, ate fresh things -there was no refrigeration. She would not have been sedentary because she would have had no elevators. I mean, why would she get this kind of thing?
Dr. THOMAS: Well, our hypothesis is they wouldn't have them because they were active, their diet was much different, they didn't have tobacco. But to our surprise, they had atherosclerosis in the large arteries, as well as the small arteries that can cause problems. For example, in this woman who died 1550 B.C. approximately in her 40s, that she would have atherosclerosis, I think we're missing a risk factor.
Right now, we know that high blood pressure, smoking, cholesterol, inactivity and other things caused atherosclerosis, but I think that we're less complete than we think.
WERTHEIMER: Now, obviously, working people did not merit mummification. Do you think that your research might be showing us a very inbred group, these aristocrats?
Dr. THOMAS: Well, the pharaohs and their families did like to keep the power and the wealth. So they would often, brothers and sisters, would be married. But we found the atherosclerosis over 2,000 years of time, and so there would be many different families who were the pharaohs or the ruling parties at the time. So it was - we think it's common to the environment there among the people who were the elite.
So they did have access to meat. They actually had domesticated cattle, goats, antelope, gazelles and pigs. However, we think that predominantly, their diet was grains, fruits and vegetables and not near as much meat. We do hope in future expeditions to find mummies of the more common class, but we're suspicious that even the more middle class persons, that they may well have had it, but that's research to be done.
WERTHEIMER: That's Dr. Gregory Thomas, a member of the team that discovered heart disease in Egyptian mummies.
Dr. Thomas, thank you.
Dr. THOMAS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.