Why modern life is a risk factor for early death
Is living in modern society a risk factor for vascular (artery) disease? New research suggests that the indigenous Tsimane people, who reside in villages in the Bolivian Amazon in South America, have the lowest levels of vascular aging of any population and the healthiest arteries ever studied. So much healthier, in fact, that the researchers estimate an 80 year-old from the Tsimane has the vascular health of a mid-50 year-old American.
705 adults from 85 Tsimane villages aged 40 to 94 were given CT scans of the heart to measure the extent of hardening of the coronary arteries, an indicator of heart disease.
According to the researchers’ findings, published in The Lancet, 85 percent – almost nine in 10 – had no risk of heart disease, and only three percent had moderate or high risk. Even into old age, 65 percent of those over age 75 had almost no risk.
The researchers noted for comparison a study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health of 6,814 North Americans, aged 45 to 84, whose CT scans revealed only 14 percent had no risk of heart disease, and half had a moderate or high risk, which equated to an amount five times more than in the Tsimane.
The Tsimane also have lower heart rates, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels compared to the rest of the world, said study author Dr. Gregory Thomas, medical director of the Memorial Care Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Memorial in California.
“Maintaining vascular, or artery health, is crucial to maintaining heart health as you age, as it’s all connected,” says Dr. Marc Silver, cardiologist and founder of the heart failure clinic at The Advocate Heart Institute at Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill. “Vascular aging leads to hardening of the arteries (known in medical terms as coronary atherosclerosis), which leads to coronary heart disease, a buildup of cholesterol plaque in the heart’s arteries that can lead to a heart attack as well as a stroke.”
Coronary heart disease, according to WebMD, is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States.
In comparison, heart attacks are virtually non-existent for the Tsimane people. According to Dr. Thomas, they lead an active life of subsistence farming and foraging for food in the Amazon rainforest. “We found that based on their lifestyle, 85 percent of this population can live their whole life without any heart artery atherosclerosis (hardening). They basically have the physiology of a 20-year-old.”
As hunters and gatherers eating only what they grow and catch, 72 percent of their diet consists of non-processed, high-fiber carbohydrates such as rice, plantain, corn, nuts and fruit, and 14 percent protein from wild game and fish. Smoking is virtually non-existent.
This equates to a diet very low in saturated fats (just 14 percent), zero trans fats, and missing the convenient, yet primarily unhealthy, processed and fast foods prevalent in the US.
In addition, while those of us living in the industrialized world typically spend more than half of our day being sedentary, the Tsimane are physically active the majority of their waking hours — up to 90 percent.
Men spend six to seven hours of their day being active, walking about 17,000 steps, and women four to six hours, averaging about 16,000 steps.
“We were really surprised you could prevent heart disease by this amount of exercise and this kind of diet,” Dr. Thomas said.
“We can and should learn from the lifestyles of other cultures,” said Dr. Silver. “While heart and vascular health is determined overall by a complex mix of genetics, stress, diet and exercise, we can incorporate parts of the Tsimane’s lifestyle to improve our health. Willingness to change is the first step towards better health.”
To schedule a heart CT scan at an Advocate hospital, visit or call 1-800-3-ADVOCATE (323-8622).
About the Author
Kate Eller was a regional director of public affairs and marketing operations for Advocate Health Care. She enjoys road trips, dogs, minimalism, yoga, hiking, and “urban hiking.”