Health Is not always written in bone: Using a modern comorbidity index to assess disease load in paleopathology



Paleopathology has revealed much about disease in the past but is usually limited to conditions with osteological manifestations; this often excludes acute soft tissue infections and causes of death for most individuals in the past and present. Our understanding of the evolution of disease is essential for contextualizing and predicting the epidemiological shifts that are happening in modern society, as high rates of infectious disease coexist alongside high rates of chronic disease in rates unlike those observed previously in human history. Moreover, many physiological states not previously classified as “disease” (obesity) have become pathologized, influencing our conception of disease and what defines health. By using the Galler Collection, a pre-antibiotic and pre-chemotherapeutic osteological series with modern autopsy records, our research quantifies disease burden of the past using the Charlson Index (CI), a modern comorbidity index of disease severity. Galler Collection remains and autopsy records were scored with the Charlson Index to correlate bone findings with soft tissue findings, and statistical analysis was performed for cumulative scores and absolute diagnosis counts, with patients stratified by sex and cause of death (pneumonia or cancer). Osteological diagnosis counts were more predictive of soft-tissue autopsy disease counts than were associated cumulative CI scores. Diagnosis counts and CI scores for osteological data were more closely related to associated soft tissue data for cancer patients than for pneumonia patients. This research indicates how interdisciplinary paleopathological analysis assists in making more reliable assessments of health and mortality in the past, with implications for trending and predicting future epidemiological shifts. Am J Phys Anthropol 154:215–221, 2014. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.