Scientists have fresh evidence of just how healthy a non-Western lifestyle can be. In a new report, researchers studied an indigenous group of hunter-gatherers that live in South America and found that their risk for coronary atherosclerosis—hardening of the arteries—is five times less common compared to adults living in the United States.
“We’ve been interested in understanding what the aging process is like in groups that are not part of a modern technological society, because their lifestyle is more like our ancestors,” says study author Hillard Kaplan, a professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico.
In the report, published in the journal The Lancet, the research team visited 85 villages of Tsimane people and measured 705 adults to calculate their risk for heart disease. They took CT scans of the people to look at the hardening in their arteries and measured other factors like blood pressure, heart rate, inflammation and more.
A full 85% of the people in the study had no risk of heart disease and 13% had a low risk, according to the CT scans. When the researchers compared those findings to a study of 6,814 Americans, they found that only 14% of the people had a CT scan that implied no risk for heart disease, and 50% had either a moderate or high risk. The Tsimane people also had lower levels of blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. Interestingly, even though many of the people had high levels of inflammation, it didn’t appear to affect their heart disease risk.
The researchers weren’t able to fully answer why the Tsimane people have such a lower risk for heart disease, but their lifestyles likely play a major role. The Tsimane people spend only 10% of their day being inactive; for the rest of it, they hunt, gather and farm. They consume a lot of high-fiber, non-processed carbohydrates like corn, nuts and rice, and about 15% of their diet is from meat or fish protein. The diet is overall low in fat, and people rarely smoke.
By contrast, many people in the U.S. are sedentary and inactive most of the day. Processed food has also become a ubiquitous part of Western diets, and smoking rates are much higher; about 15% of U.S. adults currently smoke.
The researchers say their findings don’t suggest that all people need to adopt a hunter-gather lifestyle. “The Tsimane are people just like us in many respects, but live under very different conditions,” says Kaplan. “We don’t want to look to the Tsimane and say this is how all people should live. It’s also a very difficult life, and they’ve benefited from modern changes. But there are real lessons.”
Instead, the researchers argue that some heart disease risk factors could be avoided if people incorporated elements of the Tsimane lifestyle into their own: like being more active, not smoking and being more concerned with diet.