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Cancer rates are much higher in medieval Britain than previously thought, study finds

This is in part due to longer life expectancy, habits like smoking and exposure to post-industrial revolution in tumor-inducing chemicals.

However, new research published in the journal Cancer on medieval skeletons suggested that cancer was more common than previously thought – although it is still less common than today.

In the first such study, researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK analyzed 143 skeletons from six Cambridge cemeteries region dated from the 6th to the 16th century. To detect malignant lesions, the team focused on three areas most likely to contain secondary malignant growth in people with cancer: the spine, pelvis, and thigh bone.

Scientists visually inspected the bones and used x-rays and CT scans. The team found that 3.5% of people showed signs of metastatic cancer – that is, when the malignant tumor spreads to a part of the body different from where it started.

“The majority of cancers form in long-degraded soft tissue organs in medieval remains. Only some cancers spread to bone, and among them only a few are visible on its surface, so we looked into bone signs of malignancy, “Piers Mitchell, senior research associate and director of the Ancient Parasites Laboratory in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archeology, said in a press release.

Taking into account modern population data that show that CT scans detect bone metastases about 75% of the time and the proportion of cancer deaths that involve spread to the bone, the researchers estimated that 9% to 14% of Medieval Britons developed cancer.

“Modern research shows that a third to half of people with soft tissue cancers will find the tumor spreading to their bones. We combined this data with evidence of bone metastasis from our study to estimate cancer rates. for medieval Britain, ”Mitchell explained. main author.

Major affliction

Previous research on cancer rates using archaeological records has been limited to examining the bone surface for lesions. These earlier studies suggested cancer was rare, affecting less than 1% of the population, according to the study.

Cancer rates are much higher in medieval Britain than previously thought, study finds

“Until now, the most important causes of ill health in medieval people were thought to be infectious diseases such as dysentery and bubonic plague, as well as malnutrition and injuries from accidents or war,” said co-author Jenna Dittmar, associate researcher at McDonald’s Cambridge University Archaeological Research Institute during study analysis.

“We must now add cancer as one of the major classes of diseases that afflicted people in the Middle Ages,” Dittmar said in the statement.

Even with this higher estimate, cancer was still much less common in medieval times than in modern Britain, where the prevalence of cancer at the time of death is 40% to 50%, according to the study.

Unanswered question

Cancer rates are much higher in medieval Britain than previously thought, study finds

A key question that remains unanswered, according to the study, is to what extent the effects of smoking and the toxins and pollutants of industrialization have had on the risk of developing cancer.

“The best way to answer that question would be to study data prior to the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s and 1800s and before tobacco became available in Britain following the transatlantic colonization of the Americas by Europeans in the 1500s, ”the study said.

The researchers said the study had limitations. Diagnosing cancer in people who have died for centuries is difficult – the skeletons cannot describe their symptoms or have blood tests. In addition, other diseases over the course of life can cause bone changes that can mimic lesions caused by metastases, and decay can also affect bone after death.

In addition, the sample size was limited by the number of skeletons available with good preservation of the spine, pelvis and thigh, leading to a greater margin of error.

“We need further studies using CT scans of apparently normal skeletons in different regions and time periods to see how common cancer was in key civilizations of the past,” Mitchell said.


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