The healthiest hearts in the world can be found in the Amazon rainforest, specifically with the Tsimane tribe in Bolivia. Their hunting and gathering lifestyle protects them against the heart disease risks Americans face every day, according to a new study.
Scientists from the Memorial Care Heart and Vascular Institute at Long Beach Memorial in California studied the Tsimane people for more than a year. More than 700 tribe members participated in the study.
Though the study participants were aged 40 years or older, maintaining a living through subsistence farming and foraging for food keeps the tribe healthy and young, said study author Gregory Thomas.
“We found that based on their lifestyle, 85 percent of this population can live their whole life without any heart artery atherosclerosis [hardening],” Thomas said to CBS News. “They basically have the physiology of a 20-year-old.”
The researchers took CAT scans of tribe members to check for coronary artery disease. The CAT scans were then assessed through coronary artery calcium scoring, a test that detects and measures the amount of calcium in the walls of the coronary arteries.
Eighty-five percent of the Tsimane had no risk for heart disease, while 13 percent and 3 percent were found to have low risk and high risk for heart disease, respectively. Obesity, hypertension, high blood sugar and regular cigarette smoking were rare habits for the tribe as well.
Thomas said the Tsimane eat a low-fat diet, consuming only what they grow or catch. The majority of their diets include non-processed foods like rice, plantains, corn, nuts and fruit, while their protein is usually lean meat and fish. Cigarettes are commonly used for makeshift medical solutions, Thomas said.
“They mainly use cigarettes to burn these huge flies out of their skin, down there in the rainforest,” he said.
The Tsimane men and women are constantly active, with men averaging 17,000 steps a day and women averaging 16,000 steps. Thomas said the study results from the Tsimane tribe were unexpected.
“We were really surprised you could prevent heart disease by this amount of exercise and this kind of diet,” he said.
The study authors said the results demonstrate how people can avoid developing a risk for heart disease by maintaining low cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose levels as well as getting plenty of physical activity. Though the Tsimane have other health issues, their low risk for heart disease made a new record, the authors said.
“Despite a high infectious inflammatory burden, the Tsimane, a forager-horticulturalist population of the Bolivian Amazon with few coronary artery disease risk factors, have the lowest reported levels of coronary artery disease of any population recorded to date,” the authors said.
The Tsimane live in a constant state of infection-induced inflammation due to parasites such as hookworm, roundworm and giardia. The study argues against the theory that the tribal people have hardened arteries due to inflammation, Thomas said.
Douglas Jacoby, medical director for the Penn Medicine Center for Preventative Cardiology and Lipid Management in Philadelphia, said he believes the study doesn’t explore every explanation of the Tsimane tribe’s heart health.
“The authors conclude that genetics only play a minor part in the causation of coronary disease. I don’t think that’s a well-founded statement,” Jacoby said. “There are real genetic risk factors that have an impact on whether a person will have a heart attack or stroke, and living healthy will not fully overcome that risk.”