Science

Indigenous South Americans beat the ageing process

Heart health greatly varies between individuals (Photographer: Edward Leung)

by Lucy Sullivan

As we age in industrial society, the risk of heart disease is rising at an alarming rate. However, a study from the University of New Mexico found that an Indigenous South American group has the healthiest arteries of all populations recorded. This research may offer an effective formula for a healthy lifestyle. An 80 year old woman from an indigenous group called the ‘Tsimane’ has been discovered to have the same vascular age as an American in his or her mid-fifties.

The subject group are the Tsimane people, who reside in the Bolivian Amazon. The Tsimane group, pronounced ‘Chee-mah-nay’ are a horticulturist population; they are hunter-gatherers sustained by naturally sourced produce. Their diet includes: low saturated fats, non-processed fibre-rich carbohydrates,wild game and fish. Their levels of vascular ageing are the lowest reported. Coronary atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) occurs five times less in this group than in the US population.

Their diet is mainly carbohydrate-based at 72%. These are non-processed carbohydrates consisting of high fibres such as rice, plantain, manioc, corn, nuts and fruits. Protein accounts for 14% of their diet and comes from animal meat. They have a low fat intake which also equates to 14% . This is approximately 38 grams of fat each day, including 11g saturated fat and no trans fats.

In addition to food intake, habitual practices such as daily exercise contribute to the ‘healthy hearts’ of the Tsimanes. Contrastingly to people in more developed nations Tsimane people are active for 90% of their day. This is largely due to manual labour in the form of food sourcing and cultivating. Meanwhile, industrial populations are inactive for 54% of their waking hours. Tsimane men are physically active for 6-7 hours of their day and women for 4-6 hours.

While some consider the leisurely life of MEDC (More Economically Developed Countries) a privilege, such privileges seem to have resulted in unhealthy consequences. For example, smoking, alcoholism and fast-food are commonly known for their correlation with heart disease. MEDC nations such as the UK and USA have extensive knowledge of theory regarding the ‘balanced diet.’ However, Less Economically Developed Countries have regularity in terms of dietary practice. This diet regulation, which some may consider restrictive, is nevertheless affective.

Senior cardiology author Dr Gregory S. Thomas, Long Beach Memorial Medical Centre, USA offered his stance on the study in an interview with The Lancet. He said that “This study suggests that coronary atherosclerosis could be avoided if people adopted some elements of the Tsimane lifestyle, such as keeping their LDL cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar very low, not smoking and being physically active.” He also commented that the condition is thought to “eventually effect almost all of us.” This is an unsettling possibility. Consequently, while in many senses industrial society is fortunate, it would be unfortunate if we did not adopt certain aspects of the Tsimane lifestyle. These aspects include regular mobility, a higher fibre diet and a reduced intake of CHD promoting substances.

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