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Osteoporosis Then and Now

2013-10-21

“They used their bodies and moved more in the past,” says Professor Sabine Sten.

Brittle bones (osteoporosis) also existed in the past and archaeological bone finds can teach us more about the disease. At Uppsala University’s Campus Gotland a unique collaborative project is being run between osteologists and doctors of medicine.

Archaeological bone finds from Gotland, Skara, Varnhem and Sigtuna have been analysed within the project using modern medical technology to increase knowledge of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis or joint wear.

“A very productive collaboration,” says Sabine Sten, who is a professor of osteology at Uppsala University.

“Doctors have patient contact and can give us the whole picture of the disease and how it is experienced by the patients. For doctors, it is interesting to see and feel bones, to ‘feel the diagnosis’ and see skeletal changes that perhaps are not visible on X-rays.”

Among archaeologists osteology is an important skill, as bone is the most common finding during archaeological excavations. You have to be able to quickly determine which bones are of interest and be able to interpret them.

“Human bones from times gone by are slightly different from modern bone,” says Sabine Sten.

“For the most part it’s a question of strong bone and fine medical measurement values. On the other hand, it was common with joint wear. It is noticeable that they used their bodies and moved more in the past.”

A total of 450 skeletons from the late Viking Age to the Middle Ages have been examined in the project. They have been X-rayed at Visby hospital and doctors in Visby and Gothenburg have measured the bone density. The bones have also been analysed with computer tomography and genetic analysis.

What can people from the Viking and Middle Ages teach us about osteoporosis, i.e. bone brittleness? One clear lesson is the importance of exercise.

“Today we sit too much and load the skeleton too little. Osteoporosis is affecting younger people as the children of today do not move as much as in the past,” said Sabine Sten.

The research may also provide clues about the importance of diet. It’s possible to see what the diet consisted of during the first years and the last 10 years of an individual’s life by drilling into the bones and teeth and performing what is known as an isotope analysis. The question is how much did the diet differ between the different sites - between urban and rural, island and mainland.

“I thought that most Gotlanders ate seals and fish with a lot of vitamins, but this is not exactly true. Certainly they ate food from the sea, but also meat from sheep, cattle and pigs.”

Sabine Sten is now planning a continuation of the project. One of her doctoral students has received a doctoral studentship at the Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg and will continue to do research on osteoporosis, from the Stone Age onwards.

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FACTS/Bone diseases then and now

The Knowledge Foundation and the University of Gotland funded the project. The project was run in collaboration with the University of Stockholm, Västergötland Museum and the Sahlgrenska University Hospital. In total there were 12 partners. The project included about 450 skeletons of individuals in the age range 20-80 from the late Viking Age to the Middle Ages (950 to 15th century). The results were compared with data from living people at Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg.