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Bone. 2001 Apr;28(4):454-8.

Low bone mineral density in the femoral neck of medieval women: a result of multiparity?

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Department of Forensic Medicine, University of Aarhus, Aarhus, Denmark.


An archaeological investigation of a medieval cemetery gave us the opportunity to investigate 49 Danish skeletons dating from 1000 to 1250 A.D. and to compare them with 298 contemporary Danes (aged 19-79 years) and assess the millennial trend in bone mineral density (BMD) in populations considered genetically closely related. BMD and bone mineral apparent density (BMAD) of the femoral neck were measured by dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) and transformed into z scores. BMD(zscore) was significantly lower in medieval women (-0.54 +/- 0.25, p = 0.04), whereas BMD(zscore) in medieval men was significantly higher (0.55 +/- 0.22, p = 0.02). In medieval women, BMD(zscore) tended to increase with age (r = 0.42, p = 0.07), whereas no change was seen in men (r = 0.19, not significant [n.s.]). Also, BMAD(zscore) was significantly elevated in medieval men (1.00 +/- 0.28, p < 0.01), but in medieval women no difference was found (-0.28 +/- 0.21, n.s.). However, the correlation between BMAD(zscore) and age was significant in the medieval women where it increased with advancing age (r = 0.49, p = 0.03). In conclusion, medieval women had lower BMD when compared with contemporary women, but this relationship was reversed in women who survived to older ages. In contrast, medieval men had significantly higher BMD as compared with contemporary men at all ages. The observed lower BMD in medieval women can be explained by the well-known selective mortality among the younger women. A high birth rate and prolonged periods of lactation are the main reasons for the observed increased mortality, and therefore can also very likely explain the associated low BMD. The increase in the incidence of osteoporosis in modern elderly women could possibly, or partially, be explained by the survival of women who would have died prematurely had they lived in earlier centuries.

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