Mummies were heart unhealthy too

Researchers from the Mid America Heart Institute gave 22 mummies in the Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo CT scans and found that 9 of the 16 with usable heart tissue showed signs of heart disease, mainly hardened arteries.

At first glance, the results were unexpected because we modern types indulge in more risky behaviors like smoking and Big Macs. We think of pre-modern people on the whole living less sedentary, less heart-unhealthy lives than we do.

“We were struck by the similar appearance of vascular calcification in the mummies and our present-day patients,” said another researcher, Dr. Michael Miyamoto of the University of California at San Diego. “Perhaps the development of atherosclerosis is a part of being human.”

One mummy had evidence of a possible heart attack but scientists don’t know if it was fatal. Nor can they tell how much these people weighed — mummification dehydrates the body.

It’s not entirely surprising, upon reflection. Only very well-off people were mummified, and they would have had diets high in meat, especially salted meat. High salt intake = high risk of hypertension.

The mummies ranged in date from 1981 B.C. to 334 A.D., and half of them were over 45 when they died. The average lifespan was under 50 when they lived and died, so it seems they tapped out pretty much on schedule.

Or maybe not. The average is of course derived from splitting the difference between short, medium and long lifespans. Considering the privileged existence the mummies probably led, as a demographic group they may have outlived the average considerably. Salted meat is not as efficient a killer as starvation.

Mummy of Esankh, 1070-712 B.C., entering a CT scanner

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4 Comments »

Comment by Sarah
2009-11-19 17:52:25

Out of curiosity, why would you CT scan a mummy?

Comment by livius drusus
2009-11-19 18:12:51

It’s actually fairly common nowadays. Since you can’t unwrap and dissect them without damaging them, a CT scan is a great way to examine the remains for cause of death, sex, age, lifestyle, mummification process, all kinds of data.

Comment by Sarah
2009-11-23 22:07:06

Ah, I was just thinking – heart scan? We already know their hearts don’t work anymore.

Comment by livius drusus
2009-11-23 22:16:22

Oh, were you thinking ECG, perhaps? A CT scan is three dimensional x-ray.

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