These people eat monkeys and piranhas. They also have the lowest rates of heart disease ever measured.
The Tsimane people dwell in thatched huts in a remote corner of Bolivian jungle, and at dinner, the main meal sometimes consists of monkey. Capuchins or howlers. Other days, a hog-nosed coon, or with some luck and a grueling all-day hunt, a man might take a peccary, a kind of wild pig. Some find piranha or catfish in local rivers. For sides, the Tsimane may gather wild fruits and nuts, or harvest small farm plots, where they grow rice, plantains and corn.
Maybe, some will think, all that’s their diet secret.
According to a study published Friday in the Lancet, a peer-reviewed British medical journal, the Tsimane have the lowest rates of heart disease ever measured, and in the United States and parts of Europe where heart disease is the leading cause of death, the news is expected to arouse widespread curiosity and a question: How do they do it?
The Tsimane “have the lowest reported levels of coronary artery disease of any population recorded to date,” according to the paper written by a team of doctors and anthropologists.
The scientists estimated heart disease during examinations of 705 Tsimane, each of whom traveled about two days by boat and road to get to a clinic. There, they underwent sophisticated X-ray scans of their coronary arteries to determine the amount of calcium plaque, a measure of heart disease. On this basis, the Tsimane measured much healthier than any other people studied, including groups from the United States, Europe, Korea and Japan, according to researchers.
“If you think of the calcium plaque as a reasonable measure of arterial age, their arteries are 28 to 30 years younger than ours,” said Randall Thompson, one of the authors and a cardiologist at St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City. “Obviously the Tsimane are achieving something that we are not.”
Previous studies of remote groups have raised doubts about modern lifestyles. For example, a 1984 analysis found that members of the Luo tribe in Kenya who migrated to Nairobi had higher blood pressures than those who remained in the villages. Another, from the ‘60s, found that the Masai of East Africa had remarkably low levels of blood cholesterol, despite a diet dominated by meat and milk. The Inuit of Greenland also reportedly had low levels of blood cholesterol. And electrocardiograms of !Kung Bushmen led researchers to say their study “confirmed the impression ... that hypertension and ischaemic heart disease, two of the most important heart ailments in Western Society, do not occur in the Bushman.”
The studies of the Tsimane began in 1999 when Michael Gurven, a University of California at Santa Barbara anthropologist, first visited, and a few years later, with colleagues, formed a project to study Tsimane lives and health. What distinguishes the Tsimane research is that rather than measure loose predictors of heart risk as the previous research had done, the scientists used computer-enhanced X-ray scans, known as CT, or computed tomography, to gauge how much plaque was clogging the arteries around the heart.
These calcium scores “are the best predictors of heart disease,” said Matthew Budoff, a UCLA cardiologist and expert in coronary calcium. “It’s a direct measure of atherosclerosis. It’s literally measuring the disease in the artery.”
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