Ancient Mummies Reveal Surprising Secrets about Heart Disease

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This is the first in a 2-part series about studying heart disease in ancient mummies. Join us as we learn why Chris Rowan, MD, recently traveled to Germany to perform CT scans on the bones of mummies. In short: His team was in search of answers to modern medical questions about the human heart.

The prevalence of heart disease is unsettling, and it’s only gaining momentum. It claims the lives of 610,000 Americans each year — that’s 1 in 4. Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide and in the U.S., with approximately 2,150 Americans dying from heart-related disease every day — that’s one every 40 seconds.

So what do we do about this modern epidemic that claims more lives each year than all forms of cancer combined? We do what we’ve always been told: Get off the couch, cut out the smoking, forget the potato chips and start exercising.

 

But medical experts are hard at work studying the disease from every angle. Sometimes literally.

Case in point: Chris Rowan, MD, is the latest doctor to join the cardiology team at Renown. Given his specialty in Clinical Cardiology and board certification in echocardiography (with board certifications in cardiology, nuclear cardiology and cardiac computerized tomography — or CT — pending), it’s clear he has a keen interest in diseases of the heart and cardiovascular system.

Dr. Rowan is interested in their genesis, causes and risk factors, prevention, and treatment. And CT plays a significant role in this research.

Heart Disease and Computerized Tomography

CT scans involve an x-ray that takes pictures of the heart from all sides, creating a three-dimensional image of the muscle. “I can actually look inside of the heart and see the calcium in a patient’s arteries, which would mean that they have atherosclerosis,” he explains; atherosclerosis is a heart condition characterized by plaque building up in the arteries, causing them to harden and narrow and impede oxygen-rich blood flow to the body.

Atherosclerosis can lead to cardiovascular disease, which causes stroke, heart attack and even death.

With CT scan technology, cardiologists like Dr. Rowan are helping patients learn more about their own heart health and how to prevent disease.

But in the last few years, researchers are using this same technology to learn more about the cardiovascular system throughout human history by studying the dead.

More specifically: mummies.

Recently, Dr. Rowan took his expertise and experience with CT scan technology across the pond to the Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany. There he joined a group of international researchers called the Horus Group — of which Dr. Rowan is a member — and investigated 50 mummies in the Museum’s warehouse in the southern part of Berlin.

Dr. Rowan examines mummyThe group studied the mummies from Sept. 25 to Oct. 3 of this year, looking for signs of atherosclerosis.

But why study mummified bodies to learn about atherosclerosis? Isn’t it a disease resulting primarily from modern lifestyle choices?

Recent scientific discovery suggests no. Current research is painting a picture that atherosclerosis and other diseases of the heart have plagued the human race for millennia.

The Origins of Studying Heart Disease in Mummies

The seed for this research was planted almost a decade ago.

Dr. Gregory Thomas, clinical professor of cardiology at UC Irvine, and Dr. Adel Allam, of Al Azhar University, had visited the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, and there they came across a mummified pharaoh who lived 3,200 years ago; his name was King Merneptah, and a plaque next to his sarcophagus suggested he had suffered from atherosclerosis.

They were perplexed by the notion, considering heart disease has typically been considered a modern affliction.

So after months of negotiation, the men were granted permission to perform full-body CT scans on 52 mummies in the museum — 40 percent showed signs of atherosclerosis.

It was at this time that the two formed The Horus Group — named after a significant deity in ancient Egyptian religion — with Dr. Thomas serving as the group leader and Dr. Allam consulting.

Current Research on Mummies in Berlin

Since 2007, the Horus Group has been forming similar agreements with museums around the world in order to scan ancient bones for signs of heart disease. And they have been joined by other cardiologists in their research — Dr. Rowan among them.

Dr. Rowan performs CT scan on mummy

Fast forward to 2015, when Dr. Rowan and other members of the Horus Group were invited to the Neues Museum in Berlin to examine pre-Roman mummies from the 4th through 1st centuries B.C., as well as pre-dynastic mummies — some of them dating as far back as 3400 B.C.

What was unique about this particular study? “We had access to a pre-dynastic mummy, which, if we find atherosclerosis, would be the most ancient human ever to be diagnosed with the disease.” 

He says the mummies they investigated were in varying degrees of decay. “I saw a little of everything — some of the mummies were just piles of rags and bones. Others were very well preserved,” notes Dr. Rowan.

The researchers are finalizing their research and are “still waiting to confirm the dating of the mummy and evidence of atherosclerosis” — for now the information is restricted. But the Group plans to publish its findings in prominent medical journals within the next six to 12 months and present them at the 2016 World Congress on Mummy Studies to be held in Lima, Peru.

In our next installment, we’ll address the process of how these mummies “talk” to researchers from beyond their graves — and the implications of these stories on modern medicine.

1 COMMENT

  1. Very fascinating, I love mummies. I just returned from a 30 day trip to Peru when I imaged 222 specimens. Would love to get on to another research team and do more. I give presentations all over the country on Mummies and our work in Peru. I think studying the past is what will help patients in the future!

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