Tsimane family out fishing. Credit: RNW.org, Flickr.

Tsimane family out fishing. Credit: RNW.org, Flickr.

The healthiest hearts in the world are thought to belong to the Tsimane people, a tribe that lives in the rainforest of Bolivia. The researchers who studied the Tsimane say their lifestyles and diets are radically different from westerners which might explain why there are barely any signs of clogged arteries, even past age 60.

Rich man’s disease

Industrialization and urbanization have dramatically changed our lifestyles both for better and worse. We can hear about breaking news the moment it happens, network with friends even though we’re separated by an ocean. You can walk into any supermarket and leave home with a bag full of coconuts from Brazil, peppers from California or frozen chicken from Mexico. Once life-threatening viruses like polio and rabies or now a non-issue thanks to vaccines.

At the same time, most of us are sitting on our butts. We’re not exercising nearly enough and although we get to choose from thousands of produce, most of us have unhealthy diets. And although death at childbirth is a fraction of what it used to be 150 years ago and despite we no longer get killed by a meager infection, millions die each year due to ‘rich man’s’ diseases and health problems like obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, colorectal cancer, acne, gout, or depression.

The Tsimane, on the other hand, live not all that different as they did thousands of years ago. The 16,000 people belonging to the tribe hunt, fish, and farm on and along the Maniqui River in the Amazon rainforest. To get there, Michael Gurven, a professor of anthropology at University of California, Santa Barbara, had to make several flights and a canoe journey.

From the onset, the team of researchers and doctors knew they were dealing with a very fit populace. You can count the Tsimane obese with one pair of hands and most men seem toned.

The team, however, was interested in measuring heart health markers like the coronary artery calcium (CAC) score. This test looks for signs of clogged blood vessels and its score reflects the risk of having a heart attack, where a score 100 to 400 means mild coronary artery disease is likely.

After studying 705 Tsimane who were 40 years or older, Gurven and colleagues were blown away by how healthy the subjects’ hearts were — in effect, the healthiest in the world, as reported in The Lancet.

“596 (85%) of 705 Tsimane had no CAC, 89 (13%) had CAC scores of 1–100, and 20 (3%) had CAC scores higher than 100. For individuals older than age 75 years, 31 (65%) Tsimane presented with a CAC score of 0, and only four (8%) had CAC scores of 100 or more, a five-fold lower prevalence than industrialised populations,” researchers reported.

The researchers also reported obesity, hypertension, high blood sugar, and regular cigarette smoking were rare but there more infections that people in industrialized populations normally experience. This higher incidence of infection should increase the risk of heart disease because of inflammation but it could be that this effect is offset by intestinal worms, which should be more common and which dampen immune reaction.

“It is much lower [CAC score] than in every other population where data exists,” Gurven told the BBC.

“The closest were Japanese women, but it’s still a different ballpark altogether,” he added.

The Tsimane secret for a healthy heart

If you’d like to emulate the Tsimane success, there are two important factors you need to focus on: diet and physical activity. The typical Tsimane male makes 17,000 steps a day while women make 16,000 steps. Even the elders, those over 60 years, still make 15,000 steps a day on average. The average American, however, doesn’t walk more than 5,000 steps a day on average.

As for diet, the BBC informs:

  • 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

While most wouldn’t gladly revert to a subsistence farming and hunter-gatherer lifestyle, there’s much we can learn from this list. One striking feature to most is that the Tsimane diet includes a lot of carbohydrates, which so-called health professionals have demonized for years. It could be that the Tsimane are healthy despite their carbohydrate intake rather than because of it. The study, however, might nonetheless warrant more carefuly investigation of the effects of carbohydrates on health.

So, simply put, exercise more and eat produce low in saturated fat. Keep away from processed food and don’t smoke.