Study On Amazon’s Tsimane People Reveals Key Discovery In Heart Health

There is a group of people deep in the Bolivian Amazon called the Tsimane (pronounced chee-MAH-nay) that is giving new insight into heart health.

Picture of a Tsimane dwelling in the Bolivian Amazon.
Tsimane Dwelling [Image by Michael Gurven/AP Images]

In a study published by The Lancet, the Tsimane lifestyle – consisting of foraging and a diet of mostly rice and fish – was observed to be one of the healthiest known groups in the world. The Tsimane secret to heart health is a potent combination of physical activity and eating unprocessed whole foods.

“Their lifestyle suggests that a diet low in saturated fats and high in non-processed fibre-rich carbohydrates, along with wild game and fish, not smoking and being active throughout the day could help prevent hardening in the arteries of the heart.”

In scrutinizing the Tsimane people, researchers found that their lifestyles are the polar opposite of sedentary Americans. Whereas most people in the U.S. struggle to meet the minimum amount of weekly physical activity optimized for health (150 minutes of moderate aerobics), the Tsimane are active 90 percent of their day.

When the sun rises, Tsimane people begin a hard day of physically demanding activities, such as hunting and gathering until the sun sets. The Tsimane also fish in the Bolivian Amazon, which is known for its rich variety and freshwater. The lifestyle values farming with both the men and women spending hours cultivating grains, corn, and fruits.

Two Tsunami women are pictured walking in image.
[Image by Michael Gurven/AP Images]

Until recently, the Tsimane people lived lives isolated from modern living. Roads and canoes that lead to towns where they can obtain sugar and oil are slowly changing their heart-healthy lifestyles, but for the most part, they lead daily lives free from electricity, cars, and cellphones.

Because of their isolation, scientists have long been fascinated with the Tsimane culture and eager to examine what, if any, differences in health and aging exist compared to U.S. aging populations. From 2014 to 2015 researchers visited Tsimane villages and observed the people. The scientists also conducted CT scans on 705 older adults in the communities, measuring their heart health, cholesterol, sugar levels, and inflammation. Researchers compared results of the scans to a U.S. study of 6,814 people in roughly the same age group. The results of the research have upended long-held assumptions of the aging process and what it does to the heart.

The scans from the Tsimane culture found that 85 percent of all the people had no signs of risk of heart disease and only 3 percent had a moderate or high risk. The U.S. group showed the opposite with only 14 percent exhibiting no danger of heart disease. The health benefits of the Tsimane lifestyle did not stop there.

Even though they eat mostly carbs, the Tsimane people did not have a prevalence of the metabolic diseases that are common in the U.S., such as diabetes. However, both groups showed significant amounts of inflammation, which challenges the belief that the presence of inflammation in the body causes heart disease.

A Tsimane man pictured in a burning field.

So, what does all of this mean? Are the Tsimane people some kind of superhuman group impervious to disease? According to the researchers, the answer is a resounding no. What the Tsimane people do have is a lifestyle built around action, which makes their bodies examples of how human beings can fine-tune themselves into well-oiled, heart-healthy machines when necessary for survival.

The importance of studying cultures such as the Tsimane’s is helpful in combating the rising costs of diseases related to heart health in the U.S. What the researchers found is that many of the key elements in the Tsimane lifestyle can be adapted to fit into the typical American one. These healthy heart hacks include simple things like adding fiber-rich carbohydrates and non-farmed fish, as well as remaining active as you age. The smallest changes today can lead to a healthier tomorrow.

[Featured Image by Michael Gurven/AP Images]