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Keywords:

  • trabecular architecture;
  • bone loss;
  • bone quality;
  • osteoporosis;
  • past populations

Abstract

Osteoporosis has become a growing health concern in developed countries and an extensive area of research in skeletal biology. Despite numerous paleopathological studies of bone mass, few studies have measured bone quality in past populations. In order to examine age- and sex-related changes in one aspect of bone quality in the past, a study was made of trabecular bone architecture in a British medieval skeletal sample. X-ray images of 5-mm-thick coronal lumbar vertebral bone sections were taken from a total of 54 adult individuals divided into three age categories (18–29, 30–49, and 50+ years), and examined using image analysis to evaluate parameters related to trabecular bone structure and connectivity. Significant age-related changes in trabecular bone structure (trabecular bone volume (BV/TV), trabecular number (Tb.N), trabecular separation (Tb.Sp), and anisotropic ratio (Tb.An)) were observed to occur primarily by middle age with significant differences between the youngest and two older age groups. Neither sex showed continuing change in trabecular structure between the middle and old age groups. Age-related changes in bone connectivity (number of nodes (N.Nd) and node-to-node strut length (Nd.Nd)) similarly indicated a change in bone connectivity only between the youngest and two older age groups. However, females showed no statistical differences among the age groups in bone connectivity. These patterns of trabecular bone loss and fragility contrast with those generally found in modern populations that typically report continuing loss of bone structure and connectivity between middle and old age, and suggest greater loss in females. The patterns of bone loss in the archaeological samples must be interpreted cautiously. We speculate that while nutritional factors may have initiated some bone loss in both sexes, physical activity could have conserved bone architecture in old age in both sexes, and reproductive factors such as high parity and extended periods of lactation could have played a key role in female bone maintenance in this historic population. The study of qualitative elements (such as trabecular architecture) is vital if we are to understand bone maintenance and fragility in the past. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2003. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.