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What's Up Magazine

Mummy Knows Best?

Jun 03, 2014 02:22PM ● By Cate Reynolds

Illustration by Stephanie Jandris, Savannah College of Art and Design

By Sarah Hagerty

High tech has collided head-on with antiquity in recent years—and that collision may have major ramifications for the study of heart disease, among other human maladies.

“I know! Let’s CAT scan this mummy,” some inquisitive Egyptologist must have exclaimed soon after the imaging technology was invented. He/she knew that removing the bandages from a mummy was impossibly delicate work that could severely damage whatever was wrapped inside. Amazingly, today’s imaging allows scientists to see into the mummy, layer by layer—from linen to clothing to jewelry to skin to organs. A surprising finding from those first Egyptian scans was the fact that a significant number of the mummies showed signs of atherosclerosis—the condition that clogs and narrows the arteries, and generates the writing of all those statin prescriptions here in the 21st century.

But how did that happen way back in B.C. times? Were they smoking two packs of Camels a day? Were they polishing off a bag of pork rinds while watching the playoffs? Were they ordering the fries and chocolate shake with their Whoppers? Initial suspicion fell on the fact that these one-time leaders of Egypt (only big shots were in those fancy-schmancy tombs) were very probably wealthy and ate a rich diet—figuratively and literally. Did a diet high in figs and fatted calves cause the kind of arterial damage we see so often in people today?

Further study was needed; the results of which were reported last year in The Lancet, the long-established U.K. medical journal. A study of 137 mummies from all over the world—Egypt, Peru, the American Southwest, and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands—found the exact same result as in the upper crust pharaoh and friends. Mummification can occur naturally, as anyone who has watched CSI can attest. And that was the case with the non-Egyptians who were studied. This clearly demonstrated that regardless of economic status, cultural influences, or geographic locations, humans are susceptible to heart disease.

The study found that 47 of the 137 mummies (some as old as 4,000 years) showed signs of the very thing that is still causing heart attacks and strokes in modern man: atherosclerosis. But the study also showed that the condition was much more likely to be present in older individuals. Which begs the question: is hardening of the arteries simply a function of aging? Is it all just genetics? Was being exposed longer to fire and smoke for warmth and cooking as harmful as smoking tobacco? (That habit of hanging around fires was the only cultural trait all the mummies share, by the way.) Or are we all just insufficiently evolved?

Maybe, just maybe, it’s not all about our bad habits.

Research goes on. Clean living is still your best line of defense. But the answers to the questions raised by the study of these ancient cardiac patients may someday unlock the key to eradicating heart disease, the number one killer in the world.