Trouble breathing in Scandinavia: an investigation of respiratory health in Nordic Europe

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Hunter, Mercedes
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Through the use of dual sociocultural and environmental lenses this research attempts to shed light on the most overlooked segment of archaeological collections, the ‘oldest old’, and their possibly linked relationship with non-specific respiratory diseases. Based on an in-depth review of the current literature that examines medieval to early modern Scandinavian skeletal collections, potential patterns and gaps within these data will be interpreted. The results showed that although current medical research demonstrates that older individuals are disproportionally affected by respiratory diseases due to their age-related decrease in immune response and nutritional status, as well as their age-related increased pathological load (Weiskopf et al. 2009; Plackett et al. 2004; Castelo-Branco & Soveral 2014; Grubeck-Loebenstein & Wick 2002), no such validating work has been undertaken within a medieval or early modern context. Research could not be found that focused solely on the respiratory health of the elderly within these specific time periods and regions. This is despite recent calls for an increased focus on the ‘Archaeology of Old Age’ (Appleby 2010), as well as research suggesting that the sociocultural, and environmental circumstances of medieval and early modern Scandinavia were continuously influx, especially during both the Little Ice Age (LIA) and the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA), which may have caused individuals to be more susceptible to chronic infections like sinusitis, otitis media or mastoiditis (Fagan 2000; Campbell 2016; Glaser 1997). This thesis hypothesizes that the gap in the literature is due to a complex interwoven series of factors including the built-in biases that many age-at-death estimation methods demonstrate and the historical legacy of leprosy and tuberculosis in Scandinavia. Differences between rural and urban settlements and their effects on respiratory disease could not be identified in the literature until the late medieval and post-medieval periods as rural and urban housing resembled each other closely up until the early modern period in Scandinavia (Jordan 1996; Roesdahl 1999). This research therefore proposes that it may be a conglomeration of fluctuating social, political, economical, and environmental circumstances all cumulatively experienced by the oldest old in medieval and early modern Scandinavia which dictated how effective their bodies were at maintaining a healthy immune system and respiratory health as relatively high rates of respiratory infections could be found throughout both periods with a slight increase seen in the late medieval period.
Scandinavia, non-specific respiratory diseases, the oldest old, medieval, early modern