According to researchers, the healthiest hearts in the world belong to the Tsimane people in the forests of Bolivia.
A study in the Lancet showed that, even well into old age, barely any Tsimane had signs of clogged up arteries. The researchers said that it’s an incredible population with radically different diets and ways of living.
Despite admitting that the world cannot revert to a hunter-gathering and early farming existence, however, there were lessons for all of us.
Tsimane, pronounced “chee-may-nay”, are a tribe of around 16,000 who hunt, fish and farm on the Maniqui River in the Amazon rainforest in the Bolivian lowlands.
Their lifestyle is similar to human civilization thousands of years ago. The team of scientists and doctors had to take multiple flights and a canoe journey to get there.
The Tsimane diet:
- 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
Tsimane are also far more physically active with the men averaging 17,000 steps a day and the women 16,000, even those over-60s have a step count over 15,000, while most people struggle to get near 10,000.
Dr Gregory Thomas, one of the researchers and from Long Beach Memorial medical centre in California, said: “They achieve a remarkable dose of exercise.”
Scientists scanned 705 people’s hearts in a CT scanner after teaming up with a research group scanning mummified bodies, they looked for coronary artery calcium or “CAC” – which is a sign of clogged up blood vessels and risk of a heart attack.
At the age of 45, almost no Tsimane had CAC in their arteries compared to 25% of Americans who do.
Two-thirds of 75 year old Tsimane are CAC-free compared with the 80% of Americans who have signs of CAC.
Professor of anthropology at University of California, Santa Barbara Michael Gurven, 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.”
Tsimane also smoke a lot less. However, they get more infections which could potentially increase the risk of heart problems by causing inflammation in the body.
“We need a more holistic approach to physical exercise rather than just at the weekend,” Prof Gurven said. “Bicycle to work, take the stairs, write your story on a treadmill desk,” he added.
According to Dr Thomas “It could be to maintain health we need to be exercising much more than we do. The modern world is keeping us alive, but urbanization and the specialization of the labor 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.”
Reader in clinical physiology (cardiology) at the University of Essex Dr Gavin Sandercock, 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.”
While 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.”