Scientists have found evidence that Roman children were affected by rickets because they were not being exposed to adequate levels of sunshine.
The disease, which is caused by a lack of vitamin D, was more common in Britain than anywhere else in the Roman Empire.
The condition is commonly associated with the smoggy industrial towns of 19th Century Victorian Britain but the new study by researchers provides new evidence it was around nearly 2,000 years beforehand.
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Scientists from Historic England and McAster University in Canada have found evidence that the condition affected people throughout the Roman empire.
During the three-year project, the team of researchers examined Roman skeletons from northern England to southern Spain.
They studied 2,787 skeletons from 18 cemeteries across the Roman empire, looking for the deformities generally seen in rickets.
The findings reveal that vitamin D deficiency which causes rickets, a condition whose signs include skeletal deformity and bone pain, ‘is far from being a new problem’.
Though vitamin D was not as bad a problem in Roman times as in the Victorian era, evidence for rickets was found in more than one in 20 children whose skeletons were studied, with most cases seen in infants.
However, one in 10 of the youngsters from English cemeteries was suffering the bone disorder.
A century ago, rickets was rife in children, due to crowded urban living and industrial pollution.
The disease mostly disappearing in the western world during the early 20th century as food was fortified with vitamin D.
Rickets has seen a resurgence in the UK in recent years, although levels are still relatively low.
The researchers said weaker sunshine at northern latitudes makes vitamin D synthesis less effective, but the high number of infants with the deficiency suggests the way very young children were cared for could also be to blame.
Colder conditions may have meant babies were kept indoors more, away from sunshine, while pregnant mothers may have been vitamin D deficient and passed this on to their children.
Simon Mays, a human skeletal biologist at Historic England, said: ‘Our study shows that vitamin D deficiency is far from being a new problem – even 2,000 years ago people, especially babies, were at risk.
‘Being indoors away from sunshine was probably a key factor.
‘Infant care practices that were innocuous in a Mediterranean climate may have been enough to tip babies into vitamin D deficiency under cloudy northern skies.’
WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF VITAMIN D DEFICIENCY?
Vitamin D deficiency – when the level of vitamin D in your body is too low – can cause your bones to become thin, brittle or misshapen.
Vitamin D also appears to play a role in insulin resistance, high blood pressure and immune function – and this relates to heart disease and cancer – but this is still being investigated.
Low levels of the vitamin have also long been linked to an increased risk of multiple sclerosis.
Although the amount of vitamin D adults get from their diets is often less than what’s recommended, exposure to sunlight can make up for the difference.
For most adults, vitamin D deficiency is not a concern.
However, some groups – particularly people who are obese, who have dark skin and who are older than age 65 – may have lower levels of vitamin D due to their diets, little sun exposure or other factors.
Source: Mayo Clinic
Vitamin D deficiency in Roman times was no more common in towns than in the countryside – unlike in the 19th century.
This is because most Roman towns were fairly small in comparison to the industrialised cities of the Victorian era and did not have the same levels of pollution which would block out the sunlight, the researchers said.
But one place in the study, a cemetery near Ostia, Italy, bucked this trend with a high number of skeletons with rickets.
Ostia was a port town which was densely populated and many people lived in multi-storey apartment buildings.
Megan Brickley of McMaster University said: ‘Living in apartments with small windows, in blocks that were closely spaced around courtyards and narrow streets, may have meant that many children weren’t exposed to enough sunlight to prevent vitamin D deficiency.’
The study was published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
ARE VICTORIA-ERA DISEASES ON THE RISE?
Poor lifestyles are causing a surge of diseases linked to the Victorian era in the UK, experts warned in March 2017.
A fall in living standards and growing financial inequality are thought to be behind a rise in cases of rickets, gout, syphilis and scarlet fever.
Rickets, made famous by Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, has increased by 39 per cent between 2009 and 2010.
The disease, which can be caused by a vitamin D deficiency, leaves sufferers with brittle bones and skeletal deformities.
Despite being common in 19th century Britain, it was all but wiped out due to ongoing improvements in nutrition.
It is thought that a fear of contracting skin cancer could be making parents overly cautious about sun exposure, putting youngsters at risk of the condition.
As well as sun exposure, vitamin D can obtained by eating foods such as oily fish, egg yolks and liver.
In January 2017, a think-tank warned rising inflation means poor families are unable to afford nutritious foods to prevent the onslaught of the disease.
Cases of gout increased by 41 per cent between 2009 and 10, from 6,908 to 9,708, The Sun reports.
The form of arthritis, caused by a build-up of uric acid, a waste product of the body, famously afflicted Henry VIII and was rife in the Victorian era.
An ‘obesity epidemic’ and ageing population is behind the rise in gout in recent times, according to the UK Gout Society.
The rising numbers of people having unprotected sex has been blamed for an increase in syphilis.
Once a death sentence, the vast majority of those infected today are curable via penicillin injections.
Figures for the sexually transmitted infection have nearly doubled in the past eight years, from 2,646 to 5,217, according to Public Health England.
Cases of scarlet fever also jumped by 198 per cent between 2009 and 2010, data shows.
The highly contagious disease causes a sore throat, fever and rash, which can occasionally lead to pneumonia if not treated promptly.
Although fatal in the Victorian era, the disease is restricted to no more than unpleasant symptoms if treated early.