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HEALTH

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

HEALTH
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.

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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.

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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.

Jeffery West men Suede Ibiza Loafer, blue,. Gregory S. Thomas. If nothing else, it proves that heart disease may not be so inevitable after all.