A healthy lifestyle is the best way to protect against heart disease, as evidenced by a recent study that found the lowest rates of heart disease ever recorded in a hunting and gathering tribe in South America.
Published in The Lancet and recently presented at the American College of Cardiology’s Annual Scientific Session, this study assessed the heart health of the Tsimane—a primitive tribe in the Bolivian Amazon that spends most of their lives hunting, gathering, fishing and farming. Their diets include mostly wild game, fish and high-fiber carbohydrates. Tribe members are active for up to 7 hours a day.
Since 2002, a group called the Tsimane Health and Life History Project team has been studying this tribe to understand the development of heart disease in pre-industrial populations. This type of research helps identify which cardiovascular risk factors are biological and which are caused by our largely sedentary, modern-day lifestyle.
The most recent study used blood tests and CT scans to assess the heart health of more than 700 Tsimane adults between the ages of 40 and 94. CT scans test for dangerous plaque build-up in the arteries, while blood tests were used to assess cholesterol and markers of inflammation.
Based on CT scans, researchers found that 85% of the Tsimane people had no risk of heart disease, 13% had low risk and only 3% had moderate or high risk. When considering only older adults, researchers also found that nearly two-thirds of adults over 75 had almost no risk for heart disease and only 8% had moderate or high risk. When compared to similar data in the United States, the Tsimane had roughly five times lower risk for heart disease than the average American adult.
Researchers also note that the Tsimane have much lower heart rates, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels than the U.S. population.
“These findings are very significant,” says Randall Thompson, MD, FACC, a Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute cardiologist, who presented the results of the study at the recent conference. “Put another way, the arteries of the Tsimane are 25–30 years younger than the arteries of sedentary urbanites. The data also show that the Tsimane arteries are aging at a much slower rate.”
This study also shows that “prevention really works,” according to study author Gregory S. Thomas, MD, FACC. “Most of the Tsimane are able to live their entire life without developing any coronary atherosclerosis,” says Thomas. “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 forestall a condition we thought would eventually affect almost all of us."