Modern medical treatments are evidence-based and depend on accurate collection of numerous types of data. Many types of data used in medical diagnoses and treatment plans are collected using various medical imaging methods, including x-rays, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET).
Because these types of medical imaging are mostly noninvasive, some of them are appropriate in the study of mummified remains from ancient civilizations. Both archeological and medical researchers have used noninvasive medical imaging techniques to learn more about the lives and diseases of ancient populations. Some of their findings have been eye-opening, and have prompted new questions about lifestyle and risk in modern populations. Here are three studies where paleoradiology has yielded valuable information that could assist medical research today.
A Study of Heart Disease Indicators in Ancient Populations
Medical researchers from Egypt and the United States performed whole-body CT scans on 52 Egyptian mummies from the Middle Kingdom (2055 – 1650 BCE) to the Greco-Roman (332 BCE to 395 CE) eras in an attempt to identify cardiovascular structures and indicators of heart disease, specifically arterial calcifications. Seven radiologists interpreted the images and estimated the mummies’ age at the time of death from the medical imaging studies performed. Demographic data was collected from museum and historical records.
Of the 52 mummies, 44 had identifiable cardiovascular structures. Of the 44 with cardiovascular structures, 20 had either definite or probable atherosclerosis, defined as calcification within the wall of an identifiable artery. The 20 mummies with evidence of atherosclerosis had a higher average estimated age at the time of death (45.1 years) compared to the 24 without evidence of atherosclerosis (34.5 years). The time span covered by the lives of these mummies covers over 2,000 years, and definite or probable heart disease was present in mummies across that entire era.
Clues on Age, Sex, and Heart Disease from Mummies
A 2014 study by researchers in Egypt confirmed that ancient peoples had atherosclerosis. This study compared whole-body CT scans of 76 Egyptian mummies from the period of 3,100 BCE to 364 CE with scans of 178 modern Egyptians that were acquired for the purposes of cancer staging. Though 61% of modern patients showed signs of calcification in arteries compared to 38% of the ancient mummies, the mean age of the modern group was 52 years while the mean estimated age at death for the mummies was only 36 years. When modern patients older than age 60 were excluded from analysis, the prevalence and severity of atherosclerosis were comparable in both the modern and ancient subjects.
Today, atherosclerosis is associated with obesity, sedentary lifestyles, and smoking, problems that wouldn’t have existed in the ancient population due to lack of transportation, less readily-available food, and non-availability of tobacco. Researchers speculate that in ancient populations, frequent viral and bacterial infections, along with inhalation of smoke from other sources (such as cooking) could have caused the atherosclerosis. In the ancient population, more women than men appeared to develop atherosclerosis, and this could have been due to the fact that women spent long periods cooking over open fires.
Other Health Indicators in Ancient Peoples
A summer 2014 exhibition at the British Museum featured eight mummies from different Egyptian dynasties that were studied with the latest dual-energy CT scanners. These scanners feature 3D volumetric image acquisition and were performed on mummies of all ages at the time of death, including infants and young children.
These medical imaging studies revealed that both dental abscesses and arterial calcification were prevalent in these ancient eras. The scans were able to produce detailed analysis of pelvic bones, which enabled more accurate estimation of a mummified body’s age at the time of death. Brain images could not be made, since mummies’ brains were removed at death. Other internal organs like hearts and livers were also removed. The hearts, however, were preserved, since ancient populations believed the heart to be the home of the soul.
Modern medical imaging is allowing researchers fascinating insights into the prevalence of heart disease in ancient civilizations, and adds to the utility of modern medical imaging data. Experienced radiologists like the ones who own and operate SteleRAD are able to use medical imaging in a number of advanced diagnostic techniques, including in the diagnosis of stroke, cancer, and lung disease. With over 40 years of experience in medical imaging, the radiologists of SteleRAD provide timely and accurate interpretations for imaging centers, hospitals, and physicians’ groups in the South Florida region. To learn more about SteleRAD‘s services, contact SteleRAD online or call 954-358-5250.