Heart disease is commonly considered a modern condition, but that may change thanks to research conducted by a collaborative team composed of imaging experts, Egyptologists and preservationists who have discovered evidence of the disease, which causes heart attacks and strokes, in ancient Egyptian mummies.

Their results, presented at  the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2009, indicate that  atherosclerosis is not only a disease of modern man, but was present and not unusual in humans living 3000 years ago.

Using six-slice computed X-ray tomography (CT) scans, they systematically examined 20 mummies housed in the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, Egypt to see if heart and blood vessel tissue was present and to learn its condition.

The mummies dated from 1981 B.C. to 364 A.D.  Social status could be determined for most of them — all were of high social status.  The researchers found evidence of blood vessels or heart tissue in 13 of the mummies, and in four they could see an intact heart.  Definite atherosclerosis, in other words a build-up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances in the inner walls of blood vessels, was present in three and probable atherosclerosis in an additional three. 

Calcification was significantly more common in the mummies estimated to be 45 years or older at the time of death.  Researchers found no difference in calcification between men and women.  The most ancient mummy with findings diagnostic of atherosclerosis died between 1530 and 1570 B.C.