Did you know that the Amazonian people have perfectly healthy hearts? Their secret, scientists say, is all to do with the rain forest regime. Relying on subsistence hunting, they have the healthiest arteries in the world. Heart disease is almost unknown among the Tsimane people of northern Bolivia, who have the vascular systems of Americans 30 years younger, and remain as fit as 20 year-old’s, well into old age, researchers report in the Lancet.
They eat a diet rich in vegetables grains, lean meat and fish – perhaps more importantly, they spend most of their day walking. Scans of 707 Tsimane found that 85% had no risk of heart disease at all, with none of the hardening of the arteries that indicate problems. Even over the age of 75, two-thirds had no hardening (also known as Atherosclerosis) at all and only 8% had only a moderate risk. That compares with half of Westerners the same age.
‘Most Tsimane live their entire life without developing any coronary atherosclerosis – something never seen in any prior research,’ Gregory Thomas of the Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in California a senior author of the paper said. ‘There must be something incredible that they’re doing. Exercise is probably the biggest part of it. Their diet is great but in the UK those whose diet is great still get heart disease, only years later.’
In many ways the Tsimane diet is similar to that recommended in Western advice to keep the heart healthy. However, they consume even less saturated fat from meat, no dairy products and fewer oils than the Mediterranean diet, which is often found to protect against heart disease. Almost three-quarters of what they eat is carbohydrates, mainly rice, plantain and manioc they grow themselves, and wild nuts and fruits. Protein comprises 14% of their diet mainly from wild animals such as peccary, tapirs, capybara and monkeys, which are much less fatty than our farmed meats. The Tsimane also spend about six hours a day hunting, gathering, fishing and farming. Only 10% of their time is spent sitting down, compared with 54% in modern cities.
For people wishing to copy the Tsimane regime Professor Thomas advised: ‘I would restrict as much as possible your saturated fats and I would double your exercise. We should think about the quantity over the intensity and try to integrate as much walking as we can throughout the day. Lifelong substantial physical activity and a very low fat diet hold the problem of preventing and delaying the blockages that cause heart attacks.’
His team believe that the Tsimane’s healthy hearts are unlikely to be genetic, not least because their cholesterol levels started rising five years ago when the introduction of motorised canoes made it much easier for them to make it to the local town to buy sugar and oil. There is however a downside to living the Tsimane way. Many die of infections which could mean that only the healthiest survive into old age.
Tim Chico, Reader in Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Sheffield said: ‘Would I live like the Tsimane to reduce my risk of heart disease? No way. But what I would learn from them is that my risk of heart disease is largely determined by what I do rather than what I am.’
These I believe are wise words. We tend to eat more than we need, fill our stomachs to capacity, drink large amounts of alcohol and burn the candle at both ends. Lack of exercise is also a main factor some of us foolishly choose to ignore. I must admit I am one of them.