Those on a quest for the secret to a long life with a healthy heart should be looking to the Tsimane people of the Bolivian Amazon, apparently, as a new study published in The Lancet has revealed they have the healthiest hearts in the world.
The study, which is being presented at the American College of Cardiology conference, revealed that the Tsimane people have the lowest levels of vascular aging of a population ever reported, with – surprise, surprise – diet and exercise being credited for it.
To put their findings into context, the researchers compared the results of their study with the diet, lifestyle, and cardiovascular statistics of contemporary Americans, and the contrast is pretty shocking.
The Tsimane people's diet is largely made up of non-processed carbohydrates including rice, nuts, corn, plantain, and fruit (72 percent). Protein, such as meat from wild pigs, capybara, and fish, make up 14 percent of their diet, and they consume very little fat. On top of this, the average person spends six hours a day being physically active, walking around 16,000 to 17,000 steps a day. In contrast, industrial populations are sedentary for at least half of their waking hours.
To conduct the study, the researchers visited 85 Tsimane tribes between 2014 and 2015 and took CT scans of 705 adults, measuring the extent of the hardening of coronary arteries that signifies vascular aging, as well as measurements for age, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose.
They found that 85 percent of the people studied had no risk of heart disease, 13 percent had low risk, and only 3 percent had a moderate or high risk. For those aged over 75 years, two-thirds had almost no risk and just 8 percent had a moderate or high risk.
For comparison, in a US study of nearly 7,000 people, only 14 percent showed no risk of heart disease and half had a moderate or high risk. That’s five times higher than the Tsimane people. The research revealed that an 80-year-old Tsimane man has the vascular age of an American man in his mid-50s.
Because the study was observational, the researchers can’t confirm how the Tsimane people are protected or which part of their lifestyle – the subsistence diet of a hunter-forager-horticulturist, the increased physical activity, or the almost total lack of smoking – is most responsible, although they suspect it is down to lifestyle and not genetics. As towns expand and roads are built, the researchers want to carry on studying the effect the encroaching exposure will have on the communities' lifestyles.
The results are illuminating, and although they are not suggesting a worldwide return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the researchers are suggesting there are aspects of this lifestyle that could benefit more sedentary populations.
"This study suggests that coronary atherosclerosis could be avoided if people adopted some elements of the Tsimane lifestyle, such as keeping their LDL cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar very low, not smoking and being physically active," said senior author Dr Gregory S. Thomas. "Most of the Tsimane are able to live their entire life without developing any coronary atherosclerosis. This has never been seen in any prior research. While difficult to achieve in the industrialized world, we can adopt some aspects of their lifestyle to potentially forestall a condition we thought would eventually affect almost all of us."