Time, Newsweek, Health Magazine—and many other international media outlets from the United Kingdom to Australia—are all talking about the recent findings by a group of doctors and anthropologists who have found why a South American population has the lowest rate of heart disease—a disease that is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S.

“We found that among the Tsimane, people live into old age with little to no risk of coronary atherosclerosis, the principal cause of heart attacks,” said Hillard Kaplan, lead author and professor of Anthropology at UNM. “The national and international attention that the article has received shows that the message has struck a chord.”

In the report, published in the medical journal The Lancet, researchers explain why The Tsimane people—a hunter-gatherer population of the Bolivian Amazon—have the lowest reported levels of vascular aging for any population on record with coronary atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries, being five times less common than in the U.S.

Tsimane People
Around 9000 Tsimane live in about 80 small villages, typically consisting of extended family. The villages do not have running water or electricity. Less than half the villages have schools where children learn to read and write in both Tsimane and Spanish.

The research team was looking to better understand the correlation between the pre-industrial lifestyle and low prevalence of coronary artery disease risk factors.

“The Tsimane 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.” said Kaplan. “The loss of subsistence diets and lifestyles could be classed as a new risk factor for vascular ageing and we believe that components of this way of life could benefit contemporary sedentary populations.”

The study estimates that an 80-year-old from the Tsimane group had the same vascular age as an American in their mid-fifties.

Although the Tsimane lifestyle is very different of that of an average American, Dr. Warren Laskey, chief of Cardiology at the UNM Health Sciences Center and study contributor said the lessons learned from this unique set of observations—in a likely genetically similar population—are not that dissimilar from the message shared by the American Heart Association (AHA).

“There are no obscure secrets here,” says Laskey. “Life’s Simple Sevens, the current message from the AHA, instructs us to:

  1. “Manage blood pressure”- in the case of the Tsimane, large through a very physically active lifestyle.
  2. “Control cholesterol”- which in the case of Tsimane is accomplished largely through the physical life style and a diet high in fiber, carbohydrate derived, and low in fat and protein.
  3. “Blood sugar control”- which in the case of the Tsimane is accomplished, again, by the physical life style, low genetic predisposition and non-processed dietary carbohydrates.
  4. “Active life style” – not enough can be said here since exercise, in moderation, does wonderful things metabolically and physiologically.
  5. “Eating better”- the Tsimane’s diet is almost 3/4 carbohydrates, high fiber, with the remaining 1/4 equally divided between protein and fat—with a goodly amount of MUFA and PUFA and no trans fats—sound familiar?
  6. “Weight loss/control”- not really an issue with the Tsimane’s active lifestyle.
  7. “Stop smoking”- enough said.

Of course, westernized and urbanized man will not revert to hunter-gatherers anytime soon, but Life’s Simple Sevens will bring man to much healthier life style.”

The report further explained, “While industrial populations are sedentary for more than half of their waking hours, 54 percent, the Tsimane spend only 10 percent of their daytime being inactive. They live a subsistence lifestyle that involves hunting, gathering, fishing and farming, where men spend an average of 6-7 hours of their day being physically active and women spend 4-6 hours.”

Because the study is observational, utilizing CT scans of the heart as well as measuring weight, age, heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose and inflammation, it cannot confirm how the Tsimane population is protected from vascular ageing, or which part of their lifestyle—diet, physical activity or smoking—is most protective.

The researchers suggest it is more likely to be a result of their lifestyle than genetics, because of a gradual increase in cholesterol levels coinciding with a rapidly changing lifestyle.

“There is a positive message for us—we can do things to make a difference in our health,” said Kaplan. “The Tsimane case serves to reinforce what we already know: increase our physical activity, improve our diet to maintain a healthy weight and not smoke.”

The research findings are an outgrowth of a collaboration between The Tsimane Health and Life History Project (THLHP) and the Division of Cardiology in Health Sciences. The findings are the first of many expected reports on the Tsimane people.