The Healthiest Hearts In The World Belong To A South American Tribe

The Tsimane of Bolivia have few signs of heart disease, clogged arteries

Photo: Dr. Michael Gurven, 2003
Mar 17, 2017 at 12:59 PM ET

Life is certainly no picnic for the Tsimane people, an indigenous group spread across the country of Bolivia within the Amazon rainforest.

Every day is spent hunting, gathering, fishing and farming along the Maniqui river in order to sustain themselves; there is no access to reliably clean water, a sewage system, or electricity within their small villages; and intestinal parasites and other infectious diseases are a constant problem. But one problem that nearly no member of the Tsimane has to ever face is heart disease. In fact, the Tsimane may have the healthiest hearts and arteries in the entire world, according to a new study published Friday in The Lancet.

Hoping to confirm a long-held suspicion, anthropologists embedded within the Tsimane community measured the cardiovascular health of 705 randomly selected villagers (out of the total 16,000 people who identify as Tsimane) over the age of 40. They found that only 3 percent, or 20 villagers, were at moderate or high risk of heart disease, as measured by their level of coronary atherosclerosis, or clogged heart arteries, while 85 percent showed no signs at all. Even when strictly looking at those over 75, only 4 of 48 villagers had moderate to high risk.

In contrast, as shown by earlier research, only 14 percent of similarly aged Americans have no preexisting risk of heart disease. And the difference was so stark they estimated that an average 80-year Tsimane has the typical cardiovascular health of an average American in their mid-50s. Meanwhile, other research of theirs found that out of 50 adult deaths recorded in the last five years among the Tsimane, who live on average to be 70, only one was possibly caused by a heart attack.

“Our study shows that the Tsimane indigenous South Americans have the lowest prevalence of coronary atherosclerosis of any population yet studied,” said senior study author Professor Hillard Kaplan, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico, in a statement.

The Tsimane didn’t seem to be uniquely impervious to heart disease because of their genetics. Instead, their secret appears to be a combination of having a diet light on saturated fats and high on fiber-rich carbohydrates, staying constantly active, and mostly avoiding smoking.

That might seem plenty obvious to anyone who’s received advice on how to stay heart healthy, but Kaplan’s team also found something a bit perplexing. The Tsimane’s average level of inflammation was still relatively high, thanks to the constant diseases and parasites they deal with, and their level of HDL cholesterol was also fairly low. Yet neither factor, both of which are known to be risks for heart disease, tipped the scale much.

That suggests there’s a certain threshold of silent damage our hearts can undergo before the risk of serious harm begins to noticeably pile on and climb up. It also suggests that a healthy diet and active, non-smoking lifestyle can mitigate the wear-and-tear caused by a long-lived life. Because of the study’s nature, though, there’s no telling the impact each individual lifestyle choice has on a Tsimane’s heart health, the authors said. It’s likely, they added, that these factors combined do more to protect the heart than having any single one alone.

While the authors admit that Americans won’t be lacing up their Nikes to go hunting anytime soon, they do think there are practical lessons we can take away from the Tsimane.

“This study suggests that coronary atherosclerosis could be avoided if people adopted some elements of the Tsimane lifestyle, such as keeping their LDL cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar very low, not smoking and being physically active,” said co-author and cardiologist Dr. Gregory S. Thomas. If nothing else, it proves that heart disease may not be so inevitable after all.