Why Did Ancient Egyptian Mummies Have Heart Disease?
Thousands of years ago
Ancient Egyptians built grand monuments and vast empires that have captivated our imaginations for millennia.
Yet despite their god-like status, Egyptian pharaohs and nobles were not immune to medical conditions like heart disease.
Recent medical imaging scans of well-preserved mummies have revealed that ancient Egyptians suffered from atherosclerosis, the dangerous buildup of fats and cholesterol in their heart arteries, just like people today.
How did Egyptian royalty and elites end up with clogged arteries and inflammation in their hearts?
Their high-status lifestyles, genetics, diet, and other factors may help explain the surprising prevalence of heart disease found in these ancient corpses.
The High-Status Lifestyle
The ancient Egyptians buried within the famous pyramids and tombs were royalty, top government officials, priests, and others of high societal rank. These privileged individuals lived comfortable lives removed from the physical exertion required of regular Egyptians who farmed the land or engaged in manual labor.
The pharaohs and nobility spent their days in administration, ceremonies, feasts, and leisure
While lower-class Egyptians actively fished, hunted, constructed monuments, and engaged in agricultural work, the upper class enjoyed a more sedentary lifestyle with servants to attend to their needs.
Lack of regular exercise is a major risk factor for heart disease today, and likely also contributed to atherosclerosis in ancient Egypt.
The privileged lifestyle of leisure and luxury came at a cost to Egyptian elites' cardiovascular health.
An Unhealthy Diet Among the Wealthy
The ancient Egyptian diet consisted mainly of bread, cereals, legumes, vegetables, fruit, fish from the Nile River, some wild game, and beer made from barley.
However, royalty and the upper class had access to richer foods and larger quantities. Their diet was high in sugars, saturated fats, and overall calories.
Nobles consumed fatty meat from cattle, geese, and ducks on a regular basis. The wealthy liberally used oils in cooking and added honey to many dishes and beverages.
Food was often preserved in sweet syrups. Desserts like cakes were baked with butter, oil, eggs, nuts, and honey. Even their bread contained eggs and milk.
The affluent could afford to drink beer and wine on a daily basis. This diet high in carbohydrates, saturated fats, and calories mirrors unhealthy eating patterns today that promote weight gain and heart disease.
The Impact of Age and Genetics
Mummies provide a biased sample of the ancient Egyptian population, as preservation was expensive. Mummies were typically older individuals of high status who could afford elaborate burial rights.
Autopsies of mummies have found the average age at the time of death to be around 40 years old.
Atherosclerosis is a disease that develops gradually over decades, accumulating with age. So the relatively advanced age of mummies meant more time for plaques to build up in their arteries. Younger Egyptians of lower status were unlikely to have observable heart disease.
In addition, some genetic factors may have predisposed ancient Egyptians towards heart disease.
Modern day Egypt still has very high rates of heart disease, indicating a genetic role independent of lifestyle 5.
Smoking and Chronic Infections
Two other factors that may have contributed to ancient Egyptians' susceptibility to heart disease are tobacco smoking and chronic infections.
Tobacco was introduced to Egypt early on from the Americas. Chemical testing has found nicotine residues in mummified tissues, indicating tobacco smoking was indeed commonplace.
Infections like parasites and Chagas disease can cause systemic inflammation and damage to arteries. Tests show parasitic infections were widespread. Chronic inflammations like these are linked with atherosclerosis.
In conclusion, recent computed tomography scans have been able to unravel some secrets of Egyptian mummies' health.
Pharaohs and elites with unlimited food and sedentary lifestyles, genetic predispositions, older age, smoking, and chronic infections set the stage for heart disease even thousands of years ago.
The luxurious lives of ancient Egyptian nobility came at a price—atherosclerosis and heart disease similar to modern populations.
Mummified remains provide remarkable insights into the lives and health of people long ago and show that heart disease has plagued humans across the millennia.
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