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Mummies Show Heart Disease Is an Ancient Problem

SUNDAY, April 3 (HealthDay News) -- The earliest known case of coronary artery disease has been found in the 3,550-year-old mummy of an Egyptian princess. She lived between 1580 and 1550 B.C., and died in her early 40s, say researchers.

Their investigation with whole-body CT scans found that this wasn't a unique case. About 45 percent of 43 other mummies also had evidence of atherosclerosis, an accumulation of plaque in arteries.

The findings suggest that atherosclerosis has afflicted humans for a long time and isn't just a modern disease. The study was scheduled for presentation Sunday at the annual scientific session of the American College of Cardiology (ACC), held in New Orleans.

"Commonly, we think of coronary artery or heart disease as a consequence of modern lifestyles, mainly because it has increased in developing countries as they become more westernized," co-principal investigator Dr. Gregory S. Thomas, a clinical professor and director of Nuclear Cardiology Education, University of California, Irvine, said in an ACC news release.

"These data point to a missing link in our understanding of heart disease, and we may not be so different from our ancient ancestors," he suggested.

Genetic factors associated with atherosclerosis may play a more important role in the disease than previously thought, said Thomas and his colleagues.

Most of the atherosclerosis in the mummies was located in large arteries, including the aorta in the abdomen. But atherosclerosis was also found in important small arteries. About 7 percent of the mummies had obstructions in heart arteries, which can cause a heart attack, and 14 percent had blockages in arteries to the brain, which can cause a stroke.

The researchers noted that studying the mummies didn't allow them to determine the exact cause of death, but they pointed out that ancient Egyptian scrolls describe symptoms consistent with cardiac chest pain.

The study is published online and in the April print issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Cardiovascular Imaging.

More information

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has more about atherosclerosis.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: American College of Cardiology, news release, April 3, 2011

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