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Forensic Anthropology and Bone Density

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A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture on forensic anthropology. In general, this is the study of things you can tell from human bones in a crime setting. How old was the person? Were they male or female? How big were they? What was their probable race or ancestry?

Why was I there when my work is with the living? Two main reasons. I am the science officer for the Vidocq Society, an international forensic society. I might evaluate data, for example in an aviation disaster, whether someone might have been conscious at each point when undergoing G-forces or different temperatures and amounts of oxygen after a depressurization at various altitudes. In a scuba death, I might advise on physical changes that occur with different situations. The second reason was to learn more about bones. Bones are remarkable. Your bones know a lot about you. What was your health like? Were you active? What kind of activity did you do? When I was small, I read about an archaeological dig in ancient Rome. The bones of a girl were recovered. The account stated they could tell she carried loads too heavy for her, and was therefore (in conjunction with other evidence) probably a servant or slave. I was riveted. How could they know that? I spent years after that learning more about telling how someone moved from looking at their bones.

Throughout your entire life, when you exercise you stimulate growth of new bone cells. The physical pull of muscles thickens your bones where the muscles attach. Using your arm muscles thickens arm bones. Using your legs strengthens leg bones, and so on. This is a main mechanism of how exercise prevents osteoporosis. Without exercise, you don't stimulate enough new cells to counter the normal loss as old ones break down. Your bones thin no matter how much calcium you eat. The post Exercise is More Important Than Calcium Supplements for Bones tells more about this. Bone demineralization is rapid and serious in astronauts in microgravity (Collapsing Astronaut Gives Healthy Reminder).

How you use your muscles causes them to pull differently, giving evidence about the kind of habitual motion. More interesting is that when you are active, your bones grow and shape themselves to facilitate your motion. An example of interest to readers following the posts on squatting is that people who habitually sit for normal daily life in full squat grow "squatting facets" on their lower leg bones. These are small areas on the bone that quickly grow to make squatting more comfortable. At one point, it was a debate in anthropology that squatting facets were a marker of someone of Asian ancestry, until it was found that others who squat also grow them, and that squatting facets disappear when the person adopts a Western sitting habit of chairs and no longer squats. Babies of all races can have them.

Someone who habitually slouches can change the shape of their bones, eventually deforming them. This can occur in the spine, knees, hips, ankles, shoulders, feet, toes - everywhere you pressure your bones. Changing positioning habits to healthier ones can, in many cases, reshape the bones back to healthier shape. Think of braces on your teeth. It's human bonsai. In cases of extreme dystrophies of the muscles, someone who sits without function of their trunk muscles to hold the spine upright, can eventually deform their spine until their ribs sit on their hip bones. How are you sitting right now? The recent post What Does Stretching Do? explained a bit of why stretching isn't reducing injuries. People are stretching, then exercising and going about daily life in bent over positions that rub and grind the joints and soft tissue.

You literally shape your own health. Use the articles throughout this Fitness Fixer blog to do healthy exercise in healthful positioning so that your bones will only tell good tales about you.

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Photo by Dioboss


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About the Author


M.Ed, PhD, FAWM

Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.

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