Bolivian Tsimane Amazonians Have the Best Hearts in the World
An indigenous people living largely undisturbed in the Bolivian Amazonian rainforest for centuries may hold the key to understanding (and possibly even reversing) the aging process. Previous research has shown that this group, known as the Tsimane, enjoy extraordinarily good heart health. In fact, it’s the best heart health ever measured.
According to Eurasia Review , a follow-up study has now confirmed that their brains are every bit as healthy and resilient as their hearts, which helps protect them from Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. The Tsimane are generating a high level of interest among medical researchers everywhere, who are interested in finding out more about their health-promoting lifestyle choices.
Photograph of the Tsimane people taken during the 1913 to 1914 expedition to Rio Maniqui in northeastern Bolivia. ( Public domain )
The Remarkable Tsimane Brain Revealed
As reported in the Journal of Gerontology , a team of researchers from educational institutions in Southern California recruited 746 Tsimane men and women to participate in a comprehensive medical study. These individuals were all in the 40 to 94 age range, representing a cross-section of both the middle-aged and the elderly.
The focus of the study was on brain health. The study participants were taken to a clinic in the town of Trinidad in Bolivia, and all were given brain examinations using CT scanning equipment. These tests were designed to measure brain volume and the results were compared to those obtained from similar studies of people living in the United States and Europe.
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The brains of adults will inevitably shrink as they age. But this study found that Tsimane adults experience 70 percent less reduction in brain volume as they age in comparison to adults who live in Western industrialized nations. “The Tsimane have provided us with an amazing natural experiment on the potentially detrimental effects of modern lifestyles on our health,” declared study author Andrei Irimia, an assistant professor of gerontology, neuroscience and biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California in News Medical Life Sciences .
“These findings suggest that brain atrophy may be slowed substantially by the same lifestyle factors associated with very low risk of heart disease [among the Tsimane],” continued Irimia. The Daily Mail reports that latter reference is in relation to a long-term study published in 2017 that was carried out by medical researchers from the University of New Mexico.
In this noteworthy study, nearly 90 percent of Tsimane adults over the age of 40 showed no signs of arterial clogging , which is strongly associated with heart disease. Even among those aged 75 and over, nearly two-thirds faced virtually no risk of serious cardiovascular problems down the line, based on their impressive arterial health and low blood pressure. These results have never been matched in any other group. Now, it appears the same lifestyle that protects the Tsimane against heart problems also protects them from significant neurological deterioration.
The study appears to prove a link between the active Tsimane lifestyle, with food sourced by foraging, farming, fishing and hunting, and longevity. (Piotr Strycharz / CC BY-ND 2.0 )
Who Are the Tsimane and What Is Their Secret?
The Tsimane are a group of 16,000 indigenous people living in the Bolivian Amazon along the Maniqui River. Their lifestyle is traditional and active, centering on the acquisition of food and other important resources through natural and sustainable means. They mix farming with foraging, fishing, and hunting to secure the calories they need to survive, and the impact of the outside world on their traditional practices has remained relatively minimal.
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A few years ago, the U.S. National Institutes of Health sponsored an extensive, systematic survey of Tsimane dietary habits, under the auspices of a program known as the Tsimane Health and Life History Project . For comparative purposes, the researchers involved in this project simultaneously studied the dietary habits of the Moseten, another indigenous group from the Bolivian Amazon that had been more strongly impacted by outside contact and pressures.
A systematic survey of Tsimane dietary habits found that processed foods represented only a tiny portion of their diet. ( Tsimane Health and Life History Project )
The researchers interviewed nearly 1,300 Tsimane and 229 Moseten individuals multiple times, collecting detailed information about their dietary habits. They found that the typical Tsimane diet was characterized by high carbohydrate, moderate protein, and low-fat intake. These three categories represented 64, 21, and 15 percent of their diet respectively. They consumed a healthy variety of nutrients, and their daily fiber intake was almost double that associated with the typical North American diet.
Processed and packaged foods weren’t entirely unknown to the Tsimane, but represented only a tiny portion of their overall caloric consumption. In addition to their healthy diets, the Tsimane also benefited from an active lifestyle, which required them to walk or run more than three times as much as the average American on a typical day.
The Tsimane study links a healthy lifestyle, without processed foods, to longevity. ( beats / Adobe Stock)
Uncovering the Crucial Link Between Heart and Brain Health and Longevity
The Tsimane are vulnerable to respiratory, gastrointestinal, and parasitic infections, which collectively are their leading cause of death. But their high-fiber / low-fat diet protects them from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, dementia, and other conditions that speed up the aging process and result in many premature deaths among those who consume the typical Western diet.
“Our sedentary lifestyle and diet rich in sugars and fats may be accelerating the loss of brain tissue with age and making us more vulnerable to diseases such as Alzheimer’s,” noted study author Hillard Kaplan, a professor of health economics and anthropology at Chapman University in Orange County, California, who has been studying the Tsimane for many years. “The Tsimane can serve as a baseline for healthy brain aging.”
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Unfortunately, it seems the Tsimane may be starting to lose touch with their roots. Over five years of study as part of the Tsimane Health and Life History Project, their consumption of sugar, cooking oil, salt, and processed foods steadily rose. This mirrored what had been happening with their neighbors the Moseten, who’d been exposed to outside influences for much longer. This change hasn’t had a huge impact on their health just yet, but that may not be the case in 10 or 20 years.
The Tsimane lifestyle can function as a model and an inspiration for medical researchers and other health experts, who are constantly seeking natural and sustainable antidotes to the diseases of aging that afflict so many in Western society, as well as the secrets to longevity. Nevertheless, if present trends continue the Tsimane may be running out of time, and the opportunity to learn from them may soon vanish.
Top image: A Tsimane child in a Canoe in the Bolivian Amazon rainforest. Source: Chapman University
By Nathan Falde