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An ancient origin for contemporary chronic disease risk in South Asia?

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Chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease are a leading cause of global morbidity and mortality in the modern world. While recent changes in diet and activity levels are widely accepted to be the proximate causes for rising chronic disease rates, the heightened susceptibility of certain populations, such as those of South Asian descent, suggests a longer-term component to disease risk in some groups. Contemporary South Asians have low lean tissue mass (organ and muscle mass) relative to height and total body mass, which appears to be heritable and is implicated in their elevated susceptibility to chronic diseases. When and why this ‘thin-fat phenotype’ arose is unknown, but relevant to fully understanding the determinants of contemporary disease risk. Proposed explanations for South Asian low lean mass range from the long term impacts of climatic adaptations, through dietary changes with the transition to agriculture and/or the adoption of vegetarianism, to the more recent impacts of severe 19th century famines which were exacerbated by colonial policies. The osteoarchaeological record affords us one of the few ways to potentially test these hypotheses by offering insight into past physique. In this seminar, I will discuss the results of an ongoing project in which we are using skeletal morphology to investigate when and why low lean mass arose in South Asian populations, and whether past environmental conditions and lifeways may have contributed to a contemporary public health crisis.

This talk is part of the Biological Anthropology Seminar Series series.

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