It’s probably something that Lady Rai, nursemaid to Queen Nefertiti, would have preferred to keep under wraps: she had the worst case of arteriosclerosis ever found among ancient Egyptians. When she died around 1530 B.C., Lady Rai was between 30 and 40 years old. Although, to be fair, it is unclear whether arteriosclerosis was the cause of death. What is known is that she was not alone. In fact, a recent study of 20 mummies led by UC Irvine clinical professor of cardiology Dr. Gregory Thomas, found that nine of the 16 mummies with arteries or hearts still identifiable after mummification “had calcification either clearly seen in the wall of the artery or in the path where the artery should have been.”
The study was undertaken in February of 2009. It subjected 20 mummies on display at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo to whole body CT scans with special attention to the cardiovascular system. And sure enough, in mummies as old as 3,500 years, there was significant evidence of hardening and clogging of the arteries.
Modern medicine tells us that arteriosclerosis is the result of poor lifestyle choices like drinking, smoking, eating fatty foods, and not exercising. But the study authors are not so sure. According to Dr. Michael Miyamoto of the University of California in San Diego, the appearance of arteriosclerosis in the mummies was identical with what doctors see in their patients today, and they imply this wouldn’t occur if lifestyle factors were at root. Randall Thompson, a cardiologist at Mid-America Institute, Kansas City, and one of the researchers, argues that the evidence points to a genetic disposition which, combined with environment, promoted the development of heart disease. Said Dr. Thomas, “The findings suggest that we may have to look beyond modern risk factors to fully understand the disease.”
Dr. Miyamoto concurs. “Perhaps the development of arteriosclerosis was a part of being human, as we are observing the footprint of the same disease process in people who lived thousands of years ago,” he says, arguing that ancient and modern lifestyles differed so much that another source of causation must be at root. They would probably welcome studies that point to the fact that mummies from other ancient cultures have also yielded evidence of arteriosclerosis.
So does the study indicate that we’re doomed to heart disease no matter how much we stick to the Mediterranean diet and how scrupulously we avoid desserts? Can we gorge on fatty foods because it won’t matter anyway? Absolutely not! It is important to remember that wealthy Egyptians, the only ones who could afford mummification, ate the richest diet available in their times. Although the “lifestyle factors” in ancient Egypt certainly differ from the modern “grab some Cheetos at the 7-Eleven” lifestyle, there are, nevertheless, similarities.
The scientists acknowledge that the people who got mummified came from the upper strata of ancient Egyptian society. Egyptologist Abdel-Halim Noureddin says that the social strata represented by the mummies used large amounts of salt to preserve their food. Salt, of course, nowadays is considered a key contributor to high blood pressure, a cause of heart disease. According to Noureddin, the mummies, when alive, most likely ate “large amounts of bread, cheese, red meat and poultry, as well as honey and cakes made with butter.” Such a diet would lead to increased blood cholesterol levels that commonly accompany heart disease. But, Noureddin points out, the ancient Egyptians were not sedentary and that may have reduced the impact of their fatty diets. Then again, is he talking about the wealthy Egyptians who were carried about everywhere in palanquins, a common mode of transport in ancient Egypt, or the poor and middle class who actually were active.
And let’s keep in mind the many studies that have pointed out the correlation between lower rates of chronic heart disease among those who eat the Mediterranean diet. In my recent article on the Mediterranean diet, I mentioned that the standout factors in the lower mortality rates were moderate intake of red wine, limited intake of meat and meat products, high intake of vegetables, and use of olive oil in place of other fats (particularly, refined high Omega-6 vegetable oils). The diet also emphasizes local organic produce and limited consumption of dairy (which is organic, raw, and local at that). Not only is this regimen different from the highly processed, red-meat-rich, high Omega-6 vegetable oil infused diet of urban Americans — it’s also radically different (and far healthier) from the probable diet of the ruling class of ancient Egyptians.
It seems clear that if there is a genetic predisposition to arteriosclerosis, it acts more like a switch that lifestyle factors can turn on. Most likely the Egyptian pharaohs and their servants lived in ways that turned that switch on. Just as clearly, the modern American diet is like turning on that switch with a club. So while studies of our ancient forbears may or may not indicate that the potential for ill-health is in our genes, you’re likely to reduce your chances of developing arteriosclerosis the more your adopt a lifestyle that helps you fit into your old jeans.