You probably haven’t heard of the Tsimané tribe, but it’s worth paying attention to their lifestyles because they’ve been found to have the healthiest hearts in the world. And this is no fluke of nature – the docs says that the tribe has bulletproofed their hearts, not through genetics, but through their diet and lifestyles. Heart disease kills more men than women, and the World Health Organisation says it’s the world’s deadliest – so what can we learn from the Tsimané’s example?
Why does maximising heart health matter?
Heart disease is the world’s biggest killer, according to research published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in January 2017. It killed more than 8.76 million people in 2015, more than double any other cause, except for strokes (6.24 million). So it’s probably worth paying attention to what makes a group of people with virtually no heart disease, so healthy.
OK, we’re listening. So who are the Tsimané?
They’re a tribe in the Bolivian Amazonian rainforest. Their pre-industrial lifestyle involves living in huts with no electricity, hunting for food and clearing large areas of dense forest by axe. They basically exercise for up to eight hours a day. Their diet consists of rice, plantain (cooking bananas), manioc root (a shrub, basically) and corn, with wild game when they can find it, and the occasional fish, but there are no fries, takeaways or microwave meals. They do have canoes, however, and row miles to the nearest market town for supplies when they need to.
‘Most of the Tsimané live their entire lives without any hardening of the arteries’’
Yes, but how do we know their hearts are in such good shape? Do they all live forever?
Not quite, but researchers investigated their lifestyle and even hooked them up to CT scanners to assess their arteries. The results, published in medical journal The Lancet, were striking.
‘Most of the Tsimané live their entire lives without developing any hardening of the arteries,’ says senior cardiology author Dr Gregory Thomas from Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in the US. ‘This has never been seen in any prior research.’
Hardening of the arteries can cause blood clots, which can lead to heart attacks. Almost nine out of ten of the 705 Tsimané adults who took part in the study had no risk of heart disease, while 13% had a low risk and only 3% – 20 individuals – had moderate or high risk.
‘This study suggests hardening of the arteries could be avoided if people adopted some elements of the Tsimané lifestyle, such as keeping their LDL cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar very low, not smoking and being physically active,’ says Thomas. In fact, regular exercise reduces your risk of heart disease by 30%, according to the WHO.
How do we know whether it’s diet, lifestyle or even genetic?
Scientists want to do more research into which of the first two have a greater influence, but they’re tempted to rule out genetics for one simple reason: ‘Over the last five years, new roads and the introduction of motorised canoes have dramatically increased access to the nearby market town to buy sugar and cooking oil,’ Dr Ben Trumble of Arizona State University, another of the report’s authors, told RISING. ‘This is ushering in major economic and nutritional change for the Tsimané.’ Those whose lifestyle is changing are the ones whose cholesterol is higher than those who stay at home chasing deer.
‘Does your meal grow up from, or down to, the ground? I’ve yet to see a biscuit tree’
So, should we turn off our electricity and start running around with bows and arrows?
No, but there are lessons to be learned and you can make simple changes without moving into a hut. ‘The importance of saturated and unsaturated fat in determining cholesterol levels and cardiac risk remains a topic for intense debate,’ cardiologist Dr Conrad Murphy told RISING. ‘What we do know is the trans fats are bad for you, so avoid fast food, takeaways, pastries, biscuits and cakes. Monounsaturated fats lower LDL cholesterol, and can be found in olive oil, rapeseed oil, nuts, seeds avocados and peanut butter.
‘The best advice for keeping your blood sugar stable and avoiding harmful insulin spikes is to avoid sugar as much as possible. As with cholesterol, you’re better off eating fresh food than processed food. Ask yourself, “does my meal grow up from or down to the ground?” I’ve yet to come across a biscuit tree…’
Probably just as well. Anything else?
‘As well as cleaning up your diet, physical activity is vitally important,’ says Dr Murphy. ‘It’s recommended that adults aged between 19 and 64 should do 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week, and strength exercises that work all the major muscles on at least two days per week – but that’s a minimum unless you have a medical issue. If you’re healthy, get out there and give your heart some fun.’
WHAT NEXT? You can get a sample of the Tsimané’s lifestyle from this short National Geographic video, but if plantain doesn’t float your canoe, try logging 20 minutes of moderate exercise per day for the next seven days, for a healthier heart. Work it into your daily routine – before work, during lunchtime – and if there’s a shortfall at the end of the day, then plug the gap with some press-ups!
Photos: Ben Trumble
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.