Bolivia’s Tsimane Tribe: What Makes Their Hearts So Healthy?

Bolivia's Tsimane Tribe: What Makes Their Hearts So Healthy?

One may wonder what’s the secret behind the Tsimane tribe’s unusually good heart health. By the looks of it, it may all boil down to this Bolivian tribe’s rather peculiar diet.

A report from the Washington Post offered an in-depth look at the Tsimane’s heart-healthy diet, which may include different types of monkeys for dinner, such as capuchins or howlers. Other unusual food choices may also be included, such as hog-nosed coons and peccaries, the latter of which are a breed of wild pig. And should the Tsimane prefer a meal of fish, they could favor catfish, which isn’t that unusual, or maybe piranhas, which are far better known as fearsome predators than a dinnertime option. These Bolivian tribesmen also gather wild fruits and nuts or gather rice, plantains, and corn from farm plots.

This was the primary takeaway from a study published on Friday in the Lancet, and it looks like these mostly bizarre food choices are responsible for giving the Tsimane tribe the lowest-ever heart disease rates on record. So does that mean we should give these strange culinary choices a try, especially since the United States and several parts of Europe are notorious for having high heart disease rates, with heart events often a leading cause of death per country?

The researchers came up with the information by analyzing heart disease rates detected from examinations of over 700 Tsimane. Each of these tribesmen had taken about two days to get to a clinic for examination, and once there, they were examined for coronary artery calcium (CAC) levels – this is a key indicator of heart disease. And based on the analysis, the Tsimane tribe had much better heart health than anyone else studied, including people from Europe, the United States, and Asia.

Study author Randall Thompson, a cardiologist at St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, observed that the arteries of the Tsimane appear significantly younger than those from other countries.

“If you think of the calcium plaque as a reasonable measure of arterial age, their arteries are 28 to 30 years younger than ours. Obviously the Tsimane are achieving something that we are not.”

In its report, BBC News broke down the components of the average Tsimane’s diet, comparing it to the average Western diet. According to the report, 17 percent of this diet is composed of wild pig, tapir, and capybara, the latter of which is the largest rodent in the world. Seven percent is made up of piranha, catfish, and other freshwater fish. The remaining three-fourths is made up of the crops mentioned above from farming and fruits and nuts foraged by the tribesmen.

When compared to Western diets, 72 percent of the Tsimane tribe’s diet comes from carbohydrates, as to 52 percent in America. Only 14 percent of the Tsimane diet comes from fat sources, or less than one-half of 34 percent for Western diets, with lower consumption of saturated fat. The main similarity was the 14 percent protein composition, though both diets ultimately differed due to the higher lean meat content of the Tsimane diet.

BBC News also noted that the Tsimane tribe is a very physically active one, with men averaging 17,000 steps a day and women averaging 16,000. Older tribe members are also unusually fit, as their step count averages over 15,000, the researchers wrote. As a result of this combination of healthy diet and physical activity, about two-thirds of Tsimane aged 75 or more no longer have CAC in their systems.

Although there are some pitfalls to their remarkable ability to stay free of heart disease, such as the higher chance of infections, scientists believe that the Tsimane tribe could potentially set a good example to their Western neighbors through their regimen of exercise.

Gregory Thomas, a researcher from the Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in California, believes this is so.

“It could be to maintain health we need to be exercising much more than we do. The modern world is keeping us alive, but urbanization and the specialization of the labor force could be new risk factors (for heart disease). (The Tsimane tribe) also live in small communities, life is very social, and they maintain a positive outlook.”

[Featured Image by Michael Gurven/AP Images]