The healthiest hearts in the world have been found in the Tsimane people in the forests of Bolivia, say researchers.
Barely any Tsimane had signs of clogged up arteries – even well into old age – a study in the Lancet showed.
“It’s an incredible population” with radically different diets and ways of living, said the researchers.
They admit the rest of the world cannot revert to a hunter-gathering and early farming existence, but said there were lessons for all of us.
Tsimane is pronounced “chee-may-nay”.
There are around 16,000 Tsimane who hunt, fish and farm on the Maniqui River in the Amazon rainforest in the Bolivian lowlands.
Their way of life has similarities to human civilisation thousands of years ago.
It took the team of scientists and doctors multiple flights and a canoe journey to get there.
How does your diet compare with the Tsimane?
- 17% of their diet is game including wild pig, tapir and capybara (the world’s largest rodent)
- 7% is freshwater fish including piranha and catfish
- Most of the rest comes from family farms growing rice, maize, manioc root (like sweet potato) and plantains (similar to banana)
- It is topped up with foraged fruit and nuts
- 72% of calories come from carbohydrates compared with 52% in the US
- 14% from fat compared with 34% in the US, Tsimane also consume much less saturated fat
- Both Americans and Tsimane have 14% of calories from protein, but Tsimane have more lean meat
How fit are they?
They are also far more physically active with the men averaging 17,000 steps a day and the women 16,000.
Even the over-60s have a step count over 15,000.
It makes most people’s struggle to get near 10,000 seem deeply insignificant.
“They achieve a remarkable dose of exercise,” says Dr Gregory Thomas, one of the researchers and from Long Beach Memorial medical centre in California.
So how magnificent are their hearts?
The scientists looked for coronary artery calcium or “CAC” – which is a sign of clogged up blood vessels and risk of a heart attack.
The scientists scanned 705 people’s hearts in a CT scanner after teaming up with a research group scanning mummified bodies.
At the age of 45, almost no Tsimane had CAC in their arteries while 25% of Americans do.
By the time they reach age 75, two-thirds of Tsimane are CAC-free compared with the overwhelming majority of Americans (80%) having signs of CAC.
The researchers have been studying this group for a long time so it is not simply a case of the unhealthy Tsimane dying young.
Michael Gurven, a professor of anthropology at University of California, Santa Barbara, told the BBC: “It is much lower than in every other population where data exists.
“The closest were Japanese women, but it’s still a different ballpark altogether.”
Is it only diet and exercise?
They also smoke a lot less, but they do get more infections which could potentially increase the risk of heart problems by causing inflammation in the body.
One idea is that intestinal worms – which dampen immune reactions – could be more common and this may help protect the heart.
What can I learn?
Prof Gurven said: “I would say we need a more holistic approach to physical exercise rather than just at the weekend.
“Bicycle to work, take the stairs, write your story on a treadmill desk.” (I didn’t)
Dr Thomas said: “It could be to maintain health we need to be exercising much more than we do.
“The modern world is keeping us alive, but urbanisation and the specialisation of the labour force could be new risk factors [for an unhealthy heart].
“They also live in small communities, life is very social and they maintain a positive outlook.”
What do experts make of all this?
Dr Gavin Sandercock, reader in clinical physiology (cardiology) at the University of Essex, said: “This is an excellent study with unique findings.
“The Tsimane get 72% of their energy from carbohydrates.
“The fact that they have the best indicators of cardiovascular health ever reported is the exact opposite to many recent suggestions that carbohydrates are unhealthy.”
Prof Naveed Sattar, from the University of Glasgow, said: “This is a beautiful real life study which reaffirms all we understand about preventing heart disease.
“Simply put, eating a healthy diet very low in saturated fat and full of unprocessed products, not smoking and being active life long, is associated with the lowest risk of having furring up of blood vessels.”
Proof modern life really does kill as remote Amazon tribe have healthiest arteries ever studied
Modern life really does kill after a remote tribe living deep in the Amazon were found to have the healthiest arteries ever studied.
A new study estimates that an 80-year-old from the Tsimane has the same vascular age as an American in their mid-fifties.
Heart rate, blood pressure , cholesterol, and blood glucose were also much lower, probably as a result of the tribe’s lifestyle, according to the researchers.
The indigenous Tsimane people, who live in the Bolivian Amazon, have the lowest reported levels of vascular ageing for any population.
Hardening of the arteries, known as coronary atherosclerosis, which leads to coronary heart disease and angina is FIVE TIMES less common than in the US, according to the research published in The Lancet.
Unlike people in first world, the Tsimane survive on a diet low in saturated fats and high in non-processed foods.
The researchers suggests that the loss of subsistence diets and lifestyles in modern society could be classed as a new risk factor for heart disease.
The main risk factors are age, smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity and diabetes.
Senior anthropology author Professor Hillard Kaplan, of the University of New Mexico, said: “Our study shows that the Tsimane indigenous South Americans have the lowest prevalence of coronary atherosclerosis of any population yet studied.
“Their lifestyle suggests that a diet low in saturated fats and high in non-processed fibre-rich carbohydrates, along with wild game and fish, not smoking and being active throughout the day could help prevent hardening in the arteries of the heart.
“The loss of subsistence diets and lifestyles could be classed as a new risk factor for vascular ageing and we believe that components of this way of life could benefit contemporary sedentary populations.”
Although the Tsimane lifestyle is very different from that of modern society, Prof Kaplan says some elements of it are “transferable” and could help to reduce the risk of heart disease.
While industrial populations are sedentary for more than half of their waking hours (54 per cent), the Tsimane spend only 10 per cent of their daytime being inactive.
They live a subsistence lifestyle that involves hunting, gathering, fishing and farming, where men spend an average of six to seven hours of their day being physically active and women spend four to six hours.
Their diet is largely carbohydrate-based (72 per cent) and includes non-processed carbs which are high in fibre such as rice, plantain, corn, nuts and fruits.
Protein constitutes 14 per cent of their diet and comes from animal meat. The diet is very low in fat with fat compromising only 14 per cent of the diet – equivalent to an estimated 38 grams of fat each day, including 11g saturated fat and no trans fats.
And the researchers said smoking was almost non-existent among the Tsimane. The researchers visited 85 Tsimane villages between 2014 and 2015.
They measured their risk of heart disease by taking CT scans of the hearts of 705 adults, aged 40 to 94, to measure the extent of hardening of the coronary arteries, as well as measuring weight, age, heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose and inflammation.
They discovered, almost nine in 10 of the Tsimane people (85 per cent) had no risk of heart disease, and only three per cent had moderate or high risk.
That continued into old age, where almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of those aged over 75 had almost no risk. The results are the lowest reported levels of vascular ageing of any population recorded to date.
By comparison, a study of 6,814 American people aged 45 to 84 found that only 14 per cent had a CT scan that suggested no risk of heart disease and half had a moderate or high risk – a five-fold higher prevalence than in the Tsimane.
They also noted that the low risk of coronary atherosclerosis in the Tsimane despite there being elevated levels of inflammation in half (51 per cent).
Professor Randall Thompson, cardiologist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, said: “Conventional thinking is that inflammation increases the risk of heart disease.
“However, the inflammation common to the Tsimane was not associated with increased risk of heart disease, and may instead be the result of high rates of infections.”
The researchers suggest the healthier findings in the Tsimane is more likely to be a result of their lifestyle than genetics, because of a gradual increase in cholesterol levels coinciding with a rapidly changing lifestyle.
Dr Ben Trumble, of Arizona State University, said: “Over the last five years, new roads and the introduction of motorised canoes have dramatically increased access to the nearby market town to buy sugar and cooking oil.
“This is ushering in major economic and nutritional changes for the Tsimane people.
Senior cardiology author Dr Gregory Thomas, of Long Beach Memorial Medical Centre, said: “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.
“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 industrialised world, we can adopt some aspects of their lifestyle to potentially forestall a condition we thought would eventually effect almost all of us.”