Amazonian tribe found to have healthiest arteries ever studied

Coronary atherosclerosis (the hardening of the arteries) is five times less common in the Tsimane group than in America.

Coronary atherosclerosis, the gradual hardening and "furring up" of the arteries, can have serious consequences including heart attacks and strokes.

In fact, "most of the Tsimane are able to live their entire life without developing any coronary atherosclerosis".

Commenting on the study, Sir Nilesh Samani, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said lessons could be learned from the Tsimane's way of life to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Barely any Tsimane had signs of clogged up arteries - even well into old age - a study in the Lancet showed.

The Tsimane people live a preindustrial lifestyle that consists of hunting, gathering, fishing and farming along the Maniqui River in the Amazon, the researchers wrote.

Researchers have found that a South American tribe with a highly active lifestyle has the healthiest arteries of any population yet studied. More than 700 Tsimane adults, ages 40 and older, had the amount of calcium in the walls of their coronary arteries (the blood vessels in the heart) measured. Yet neither factor, both of which are known to be risks for heart disease, tipped the scale much. Indeed, the study notes that as the Tsimane have been introduced to motorised canoes and processed food, cholesterol levels have increased.

For example, a recent analysis of studies of 55,685 people published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that among people genetically at a higher risk of heart disease, those who had a "favorable lifestyle" - that is, were not obese, did not smoke, exercised at least once a week and ate a sound diet - were about half as likely to experience heart disease. In a study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, researchers revealed that only 14 percent of people in the United States who had CT scans had no heart disease. Interestingly, even though numerous people had high levels of inflammation, it didn't appear to affect their heart disease risk.

Tim Chico, consultant cardiologist and reader in cardiovascular medicine at the University of Sheffield, said it was important "not to romanticise the Tsimane existence".

Scientists said the findings point to the importance of reducing risk factors for heart disease: The Tsimane are physically active - exercising for about four to seven hours every day - and their diet is low in fat and sugar.

Research suggests that the loss of subsistence diets and lifestyles in contemporary society could join age, smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity and diabetes as a risk factor for heart disease. What the researchers found is that numerous key elements in the Tsimane lifestyle can be adapted to fit into the typical American one.

In contrast, as shown by earlier research, only 14 percent of similarly aged Americans have no preexisting risk of heart disease.

Thanks to parasites like hookworm, roundworm and giardia, the Tsimane spend most of their lives in a state of infection-induced inflammation, he said.

  • Joanne Flowers