Universiteit Leiden

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New Perspectives on Past Vitamin D Deficiency

  • Megan Brickley
Wednesday 7 March 2018
Van Steenis
Einsteinweg 2
2333 CC Leiden


Vitamin D deficiency is now widely recognised as one of the most common health conditions in the world with important consequences for overall health.  Levels of deficiency appear to be rising, but the extent to which past humans were affected are currently unknown.  My research on this topic started twenty years ago with investigations of individuals who lived in Birmingham, UK during the Industrial Revolution. 

Diagnostic criteria developed at Birmingham have now been applied to 3541 individuals from the Roman Empire, the first large-scale, complex social system in Europe.  The overall prevalence of both rickets in subadults (5.7%) and osteomalacia in adults (3.2%) was less than in urban industrial Birmingham (prevalences were 13% and 5% respectively).  It is clear however that vitamin D deficiency was widespread in Europe 1500 years before the Industrial Revolution.  In subadults deficiency was closely linked to latitude; the only settlement with levels inconsistent with latitude was Ostia the port with multi-storey buildings serving Rome.  

Research undertaken alongside this project addressed the problem of determining whether adults lacking marked skeletal deformity experienced a past episode of rickets.  A clear link was established between mineralisation defects along incremental lines in dentine, interglobular dentine (IGD), and vitamin D deficiency.  Previously published work demonstrates cases of IGD indicating deficiency were present in the late Pleistocene. 

During work on dental structures we noticed that if deficiency occurs during the formation of the pulp chamber, the shape will be altered and this can be observed on dental x-rays of both archaeological teeth and those obtained during routine dental care.  Being able to better link paleopathology to modern health research will yield clearer information on conditions experienced by past individuals, and better understanding of past levels of deficiency will provide a long-term perspective on changing levels of vitamin D deficiency.

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