When it comes to vascular health, the reigning champions may live deep in the jungles of South America. According to a new study published in The Lancet, the Tsimane, an indigenous people who live a pre-industrial lifestyle in Bolivian Amazon, have the healthiest arteries of any group yet studied. They have the lowest prevalence of coronary atherosclerosis (hardened arteries), and researchers compared the "vascular health" of an 80-year-old Tsimane to that of an American in their mid-50s. Understanding the radical difference between the two could offer clues to a heart-healthy lifestyle.
Researchers suggest the disparity—hardened arteries were five times less common among the Tsimane people than in the United States—relates to the differences in lifestyle and diet. That's not completely surprising, given how often doctors recommend "diet and exercise" when it comes to cardiac health.
But the study goes farther, proposing that the Tsimane people are more healthy because they've retained subsistence diets and lifestyles. The means eating less saturated fat and more non-processed fiber-rich carbohydrates; it means not smoking, eating wild fish and game, and being active throughout the day. With hunting, gathering, fishing, and farming, men average six to seven hours a day of physical activity; for women, it's four to six hours.
The Tsimane diet is healthy, too, largely based on non-processed, high-fiber carbohydrates such as rice, plantain, manioc, corn, nuts and fruits. It's low in fat, with protein coming from animal meat.
In short, the Tsimane are the near-ideal for heart health. Contemporary society, by contrast, is much less active: Industrial populations spend 54 percent of their waking hours being sedentary, compared to just 10 percent among the Tsimane. There's more smoking and diets are much less healthy. The contrast is so stark that researchers suggest adding the loss of a Tsimane-like forager-horticulturalist lifestyle to the risk factors for heart disease. (The list currently includes age, smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity, and diabetes.)
That suggests it'd be wise to take a lesson from the Tsimane: Stay active, don't smoke, and keep your blood pressure, blood sugar, and LDL cholesterol very low. Genetics may also play a role, though researchers believe eating and exercise habits are more important; indeed, as roads and economic development have changes in the Tsimane diet (with a nearby market offering cooking oil and sugar) cholesterol levels among the people have begun to creep up. Their lifestyle is changing rapidly. Hopefully, we can learn from them before they face the same health challenges as the rest of us.