A deficiency in vitamin D can not only cause bone problems such as rickets, but also raises the risk of death from cardiovascular disease. What's more, it's one of the most common vitamin deficiencies. The good news, however, is that your dentist may soon be able to detect it before it becomes a major problem.

McMaster University anthropologists Lori D'Ortenzio and Megan Brickley already knew that it's possible to see if people who lived centuries ago had a vitamin D deficiency, by examining their teeth. The examination process involves splitting open most-mortem teeth, and looking for telltale deformities in the dentin. The problem is, the teeth – which are precious from an archeological standpoint – must be destroyed in order to find out.

That's why the two scientists turned to X-raying the teeth instead.

They found that the answer lay in the shape of the pulp, which is the dark shadow in the middle of an X-ray image of a tooth. In a healthy individual, that pulp takes the form of an arch topped by two "horns." In someone with a vitamin D deficiency, however, the shape of the pulp is asymmetrical and constricted, looking more like a side view of a hard-backed chair.

As it turns out, this finding doesn't just apply to the teeth of people who are long-dead, but also to those of individuals who are still alive. It is now being suggested that if routine dental X-rays were to indicate a vitamin D deficiency, blood tests could be ordered to confirm it.

"I think it's really important," say Brickley. "It was a piece of work that aimed to look more at past individuals, but it has the potential to contribute to modern health care as well."

A paper on the research was recently published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.