The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

In sickness and in death: What do age, stress, and illness in life tell us about skeletal remains?


1Anthropology, The Ohio State University, 2School of Public Health, The Ohio State University

Friday 2:45-3:00, Ballroom A Add to calendar

Among the living, exposures and physiological responses to chronic and acute stressors factor heavily into individuals’ future morbidity and senescent decline. Individuals who experience acute stress frequently or chronic stress incessantly tend to be more morbid and have shorter life expectancies than their less stressed counterparts. Whereas physiological responses to stress seem to be strongly predictive of morbidity and life expectancy, markers of chronological old age are highly individualistic and poorly predict future health and longevity. Age associates weakly with future morbidity and mortality when included in allostatic load (AL) and frailty models.

Current models for evaluating associations between stress and health among the living, including AL and frailty, are poorly adapted to archaeological populations because parameters typically assessed are not available from skeletal material (eg, neuroendocrine biomarkers, body habitus measurements and indices of whole body function). As a starting point, we propose a model of “skeletal” frailty based on associations between common frailty indicators assessed among the living and the effects these characteristics exert on the skeleton. Frailty indicators among the living and our proposed replacement parameters for “skeletal frailty” include (living/skeletal): slow walking speed/arthritis and joint degeneration, inflammation/enthesopathies and periostitis, muscle strength and level of physical activity/osteoporosis (associated with sarcopenia), and telomere length (strongly associated with life expectancy). Validated among the living and refined among skeletal populations, “skeletal frailty” will provide useful insights into the health of past populations and reduce dependence on skeletal stress markers as proxies for health among the previously living.

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