The Healthiest Hearts in the World

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An indigenous tribe in rural Bolivia have the healthiest hearts of any group on Earth. What's the secret to their health and longevity?

The Tsimane (pronounced chi-man-ay) are a Bolivian tribal group with an extraordinary boast to their name; they have some of the healthiest hearts in the world1. They live across the hot and humid north of Bolivia and have an estimated population of 20,000. A study of 705 Tsimane, aged between 40 and 94, found that the indigenous group had the lowest reported levels of heart disease of any population ever tested1. They also remain extremely fit and healthy into old age. But what's the secret behind their success? And how can we use this knowledge to improve our heart health?

The Tsimane have an extremely low prevalence of coronary heart disease - their arteries are significantly less clogged than most peoples1. To estimate how wide or narrow a person's arteries are, a Coronary Artery Calcium (CAC) test is often used, whichinvolves using a CT scan to look for calcium in the walls of the heart. More calcium means more atherosclerosis, a term for plaque build-up inside the arteries. This plaque puts a strain on the heart and increases your chances of having a heart attack.

Around 2.6 million British adults are believed to have atherosclerosis. Most people over 60 are thought to have some degree of atherosclerosis in their arteries, although most people don't show any noticeable symptoms2.

A 2017 study found that the average CAC score in the Tsimane group was 0, indicating extremely healthy hearts and arteries. 65% of the people over 75 that were tested had a CAC score of 0; their chances of experiencing a heart attack in the next 5 years are slim to none1. In contrast, British adults aged 40 and over have a 50% chance of developing serious atherosclerosis2.

This is partly down to the Tsimane's unique diet. Over half of the calories they consume come from fibre-rich, complex carbohydrates including brown rice, corn and cassava3. This is significantly more than the average western diet, in which carbohydrates account for just 22% of calories.

To help lower blood pressure and decrease blood sugars, switch the simple carbohydrates in your diet, like white rice and potatoes, for whole grains and complex carbohydrates like brown bread, nuts and corn. Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down in the stomach – eating these foods should help you feel fuller for longer, without causing a massive spike in blood sugars levels4.

The active lifestyles of the Tsimane people contribute to their heart health and longevity. Most Tsimane work in labour-intensive industries like farming, big game hunting and fishing. They spend, on average, between four and seven hours a day doing some form of physical activity - significantly more than the average Brit1.

Exercise is known to lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of a person developing heart disease. You don't have to exercise for hours on end to achieve these heart-protecting effects; doing just one more hour of physical activity daily can significantly improve your health5. (Potential hyperlink to a previous article?)

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6028773/
  2. https://www.hriuk.org/health/learn/cardiovascular-disease/atherosclerosis
  3. https://gurven.anth.ucsb.edu/sites/secure.lsit.ucsb.edu.anth.d7_gurven/files/sitefiles/papers/kraftetal2018.pdf
  4. https://www.diabetes.co.uk/nutrition/simple-carbs-vs-complex-carbs.html
  5. https://www.nhs.uk/news/lifestyle-and-exercise/an-hour-of-exercise-a-day-may-compensate-for-an-office-lifestyle/
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