The Heart of the Matter

A new study suggests the simple, heart-healthy lifestyle of an indigenous Bolivian people offers a prescription for a longer life. It doesn’t work like that.

The Tsimane people of Bolivia have the world’s healthiest hearts, a bit of physiological good fortune researchers attribute to their active lifestyle. These Amazonian hunter-gatherers spend several hours every day tromping through the rainforest in search of food. This routine, together with a diet rich in fibrous vegetables and wild game, tamps down their cholesterol levels, lowers their blood pressure, and generally softens their arteries.

The result, according to a University of New Mexico study, is a community in which 85 percent of its members — including almost two-thirds of those over 75 — have no measurable risk of heart disease. Considering that about half of all middle-age and older Americans have a moderate or high risk of heart disease, the study seems to offer some lessons about lifestyle.

“Most of the Tsimane are able to live their entire life without developing any coronary atherosclerosis,” study coauthor Gregory Thomas, MD, of the Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, said in a statement. “This has never been seen in any prior research. While difficult to achieve in the industrialized world, we can adopt some aspects of their lifestyle to potentially forestall a condition we thought would eventually affect almost all of us.”

There is a durable tradition in the industrialized world to hold up various indigenous cultures as paragons of healthy living. It’s an idealized view of a type of life we know nothing about: If only we could learn to live more simply, observing the rhythms of the season, and spending our days working on the land, we’d be healthier and happier.

I’m not immune to this sort of thinking. In my 20s, I actively dreamed of retreating to a cabin in the woods. When that proved unrealistic, I acted out my Thoreauvian fantasies by walking away from a series of perfectly reasonable jobs to pursue some idealized version of urban simplicity. I can’t say these excursions contributed much to my well-being; I recall spending a great many lazy afternoons wondering how I was going to make rent.

The lessons the Tsimane are supposed to teach us sedentary Americans are a bit less psychological: If we moved more than we do now and ate more manioc, maybe we could keep our arteries from calcifying by the time we hit retirement age.

It’s a plausible argument — and a popular prescription — for avoiding cardiac arrest. But a healthy heart doesn’t guarantee a longer life. As I like to remind those who spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over their workout regimen in an effort to extend their lifespan, you can do all the right things and still get hit by a bus on your way home from the gym. It’s just how it goes sometimes.

The Tsimane, after all, may be blessed with the world’s strongest cardiovascular systems, but they’re particularly prone to gastrointestinal, respiratory, and fungal infections. All that, combined with the inevitable random injuries that hunting and gathering can precipitate, tends to constrict rather than extend longevity. Their average lifespan is 50 years.

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