Case of Fatal Starvation: Can Stable Isotope Analysis Serve to Support Morphological Diagnosis and Approximate the Length of Starvation?

J Forensic Sci. 2017 Jan;62(1):258-264. doi: 10.1111/1556-4029.13244. Epub 2016 Nov 11.


The diagnosis of death as a result of starvation is established on anthropological measurements, visual appearance of the deceased on external and internal examination, microscopic analysis, laboratory testing, and exclusion of other causes of death. Herein, we present our findings on a case of 95-year-old man who died of starvation. After the diagnosis of starvation was established by traditional forensic medicine methods, we have conducted retrospective segmental analysis of stable carbon (δ13 C) and nitrogen (δ15 N) isotope ratios in hair sample. This method reveals periods of starvation through decrease in δ13 C and increase in δ15 N along the strand of hair. Our analysis revealed the decrease of 0.6 ‰ in δ13 C during the last 10-12 weeks prior to death, similar as reported in other investigations. Also, a decrease of 0.7 ‰ in δ15 N during the last 8-10 weeks prior to death was determined that was different than observed in previous studies.

Keywords: elder abuse; forensic pathology; forensic science; stable carbon (δ13C); stable isotopes; stable nitrogen (δ15N); starvation.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Carbon Isotopes / analysis*
  • Forensic Pathology
  • Hair / chemistry*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Nitrogen Isotopes / analysis*
  • Organ Size
  • Starvation / diagnosis*
  • Starvation / pathology*


  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Nitrogen Isotopes