Anthropologists had previously determined that human teeth hold vital information about Vitamin D deficiency, but the teeth must be cut open to read the Vitamin D records. Researchers Lori D’Ortenzio and Megan Brickley, looking for ways to preserve ancient specimens, discovered that the often-hidden condition of Vitamin D deficiency can be identified by a simple dental X-ray.
D’Ortenzio and Brickley’s research, appearing in an article in the International Journal of Paleopathology, found that there is a recognizable pattern in both historic and current teeth proving that X-ray images are consistent and reliable indicators of a deficiency. The pulp in a healthy person’s tooth resembles an arch topped by two “cat ears.” When there is a deficiency of Vitamin D, the pulp is asymmetrical and constricted, described by the researchers as looking like the profile of a hard-backed chair.
Brickey, a Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University, says, “It was a real Eureka! It wasn’t just that it looked different. It was different. I think it’s really important.”
Rickets, the bone-weakening disease caused by Vitamin D deficiency, has fallen off the public’s radar, but its occurrence has been on the rise worldwide. D’Ortenzio and Brickley’s x-ray studies were aimed to look more at past individuals, but it has the potential to contribute to modern health care as well.
Knowing who has a deficiency can help identify people who may have ongoing issues in time to prevent worse damage, the researchers say. If regular dental X-rays show a problem, blood tests can confirm whether there is an ongoing deficiency. This can be especially valuable with diagnosing children, whose bones are still growing. Realizing there is a Vitamin D deficiency early can help to determine what is the best balance between protecting people from harmful UV rays and making sure they get enough sun to maintain a healthy level of the vital nutrient.