The Tsimane people of Bolivia, a tribe of approximately 16,000 individuals living along a tributary of the Amazon, may just have the healthiest hearts on earth. According to researchers, the Tsimane people have the lowest levels of artery hardening—a key risk factor for the development of heart disease—ever observed. They also have lower blood pressure levels … cholesterol level … and blood pressure levels than other populations.
Researchers believe that the remarkable heart health of the Tsimane people results from their highly active lifestyle.
The Youngest Looking Arteries, Ever
Dr. Gregory Thomas, medical director of the Memorial Care Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Memorial in California, and a group of colleagues used CT scans to examine the arteries of the Tsimane people. They found that the Tsimane had the youngest looking arteries of any population recorded to date.
Eighty-five percent of this population can live their whole life without any heart artery atherosclerosis,” said Thomas. Their hearts remain as physiologically healthy as those of an active 20-year-old.
A Zero Percent Risk of Developing Heart Disease
The CT scans, which look for calcium deposits, showed that the arteries of Tsimane adults are five time less likely to show signs of atherosclerosis (arterial hardening) than those of U.S. adults. Close to 85% of the Tsimane who participated had no arterial plaques whatsoever, meaning they have a zero percent risk of developing heart disease. Thirteen percent of those scanned had a low risk of developing heart disease, and an unprecedentedly tiny number—just 3%–of the Tsimane population had a moderate or high risk.
As a point of reference, a recent study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded that 50% of adults living in the United States have moderate to high risk of heart disease, and only 14% have no indicated risk of heart disease.
Learning from the Example of the Tsimane
Dr. Randall Thompson, a cardiologist at St. Luke’s Health System in Kansas who was part of the research team, said the results indicate that when it comes to heart disease, lifestyle factors appear to outweigh genetics.
Randall and the researchers believe that the unrivaled heart health of the Tsimane can be attributed in large part to their highly active lifestyle. They are subsistence farmers and average between 4 and 7 hours of physical exertion daily. The men spend their days hunting and fishing while the women tend to the crops and care for the children. As the Tsimane have begun incorporating modern conveniences such as processed food and motorized canoes into their lives, their cholesterol levels have gradually increased, Randall noted.
Realistically, even if we wanted to, most of us would be unable to adopt lifestyles as active as those of the Tsimane. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from their example, however. According to Dr. Joep Perk, a cardiologist at Linneaeus University who was not a part of the research, even half an hour of exercise a day that “leaves you breathless” can substantially reduce your risk of developing heart disease.