Monday, April 18, 2011

Low bone mineral content in older Eskimos: Meat-eating or shrinking?

Mazess & Mather (1974) is probably the most widely cited article summarizing evidence that bone mineral content in older North Alaskan Eskimos was lower (10 to 15 percent) than that of United States whites. Their finding has been widely attributed to the diet of the Eskimos, which is very high in animal protein. Here is what they say:

“The sample consisted of 217 children, 89 adults, and 107 elderly (over 50 years). Eskimo children had a lower bone mineral content than United States whites by 5 to 10% but this was consistent with their smaller body and bone size. Young Eskimo adults (20 to 39 years) of both sexes were similar to whites, but after age 40 the Eskimos of both sexes had a deficit of from 10 to 15% relative to white standards.”

Note that their findings refer strictly to Eskimos older than 40, not Eskimo children or even young adults. If a diet very high in animal protein were to cause significant bone loss, one would expect that diet to cause significant bone loss in children and young adults as well. Not only in those older than 40.

So what may be the actual reason behind this reduced bone mineral content in older Eskimos?

Let me make a small digression here. If you want to meet quite a few anthropologists who are conducting, or have conducted, field research with isolated or semi-isolated hunter-gatherers, you should consider attending the annual Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) conference. I have attended this conference in the past, several times, as a presenter. That gave me the opportunity to listen to some very interesting presentations and poster sessions, and talk with many anthropologists.

Often anthropologists will tell you that, as hunter-gatherers age, they sort of “shrink”. They lose lean body mass, frequently to the point of becoming quite frail in as early as their 60s and 70s. They tend to gain body fat, but not to the point of becoming obese, with that fat replacing lean body mass yet not forming major visceral deposits. Degenerative diseases are not a big problem when you “shrink” in this way; bigger problems are  accidents (e.g., falls) and opportunistic infections. Often older hunter-gatherers have low blood pressure, no sign of diabetes or cancer, and no heart disease. Still, they frequently die younger than one would expect in the absence of degenerative diseases.

A problem normally faced by older hunter-gatherers is poor nutrition, which is both partially caused and compounded by lack of exercise. Hunter-gatherers usually perceive the Western idea of exercise as plain stupidity. If older hunter-gatherers can get youngsters in their prime to do physically demanding work for them, they typically will not do it themselves. Appetite seems to be negatively affected, leading to poor nutrition; dehydration often is a problem as well.

Now, we know from this post that animal protein consumption does not lead to bone loss. In fact, it seems to increase bone mineral content. But there is something that decreases bone mineral content, as well as muscle mass, like nothing else – lack of physical activity. And there is something that increases bone mineral content, as well as muscle mass, in a significant way – vigorous weight-bearing exercise.

Take a look at the figure below, which I already discussed on a previous post. It shows a clear pattern of benign ventricular hypertrophy in Eskimos aged 30-39. That goes down dramatically after age 40. Remember what Mazess & Mather (1974) said in their article: “… after age 40 the Eskimos of both sexes had a deficit of from 10 to 15% relative to white standards”.

Benign ventricular hypertrophy is also known as athlete's heart, because it is common among athletes, and caused by vigorous physical activity. A prevalence of ventricular hypertrophy at a relatively young age, and declining with age, would suggest benign hypertrophy. The opposite would suggest pathological hypertrophy, which is normally induced by obesity and chronic hypertension.

So there you have it. The reason older Eskimos were found to have lower bone mineral content after 40 is likely not due to their diet.  It is likely due to the same reasons why they "shrink", and also in part because they "shrink". Not only does physical activity decrease dramatically as Eskimos age, but so does lean body mass.

Obese Westerners tend to have higher bone density on average, because they frequently have to carry their own excess body weight around, which can be seen as a form of weight-bearing exercise. They pay the price by having a higher incidence of degenerative diseases, which probably end up killing them earlier, on average, than osteoporosis complications.


Mazess R.B., & Mather, W.W. (1974). Bone mineral content of North Alaskan Eskimos. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 27(9), 916-925.