A new study on the heart health and lifestyle of the Tsimane people in the Bolivian Amazon has shown the population to be among the most heart-healthy people in the world.
Where do some of the world’s most heart-healthy populations live? A group of researchers, which includes Renown Institute for Heart & Vascular Health cardiologist Christopher Rowan, M.D., found their answer in the Bolivian Amazon.
A new study on the heart health and lifestyle of the Tsimane (chee-MAH-nay) people in the Bolivian Amazon revealed that this indigenous South American group has some of the healthiest hearts in the world. Eighty-five percent of Tsimane people have no risk of heart disease and only 3 percent have moderate or high risk. Here in the U.S., the risk is nearly five times higher with just 14 percent of Americans showing no risk and half showing moderate or high risk. And consider this: An 80 year old from the Tsimane group had the same vascular age as an American in their mid-50s.
Researchers found that because of the Tsimane’s lifestyle of hunting, gathering, fishing and farming, Tsimane men spend six to seven hours of their day being physically active, while women spend four to six hours. This translates to just 10 percent of inactivity each day compared to industrialized populations, where the daily sedentary rate is 54 percent.
Diet is another key factor. The Tsimane diet is largely carbohydrate-based — comprising 72 percent of their diet — but the majority of their carbohydrates are non-processed, like rice, plantains, corn, nuts and fruits. Protein from animal meat makes up another 14 percent and fat is just 14 percent of their diet each day.
The study presented at the American College of Cardiology conference in March was authored by the Horus Group — a team of experts in cardiology, radiology, infectious disease, pollution research and anthropology, including Dr. Rowan.
The researchers measured the weight, age, heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose and inflammation of 705 Tsimane people ages 40 to 94. They also took computerized tomography (CT) scans of their hearts. Then the data was used to evaluate the Tsimane’s risk of heart disease.
“This study is a prime example of nature versus nurture when it comes to heart health,” Dr. Rowan says. “Over the years, many have suggested genetics are responsible for the increase in heart disease. These results counter that notion — showing that lifestyle may play an even bigger role in heart health than originally thought.”
Some scientists are saying the results are so significant they may lead to contemporary society — specifically diet and lifestyle — being classified as a new risk factor for heart disease. Currently, the main risk factors include age, smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity and diabetes.
Researchers are also studying cancer rates in the Tsimane but have seen little evidence of the disease so far. Here in the U.S., cancer and heart disease are the leading causes of death and most cases are strongly tied to poor diet and inactivity.
Dr. Rowan and the Horus Group are also studying CT scans of mummies from ancient Egypt and around the world to better understand the prevalence of hardened arteries thousands of years ago and how heart disease has evolved.