The Tsimane tribe lives in the Amazon lowlands of Bolivia. For some reason, according to a new study published in The Lancet, they do not get heart disease! The study, notes the New York Times, paired anthropologists with cardiologists to investigate.

The Tsimane live a traditional “hunter-gatherer” lifestyle. The men spend seven hours or so each day fishing, hunting (deer for example) or poling their canoes. The women gather nuts and farm rice, corn, and plantains. The tribe’s diet obviously does not include processed food or drinks of any kind. The carbohydrates that tribe members eat are high in fiber, and there is no trans fat in their diet. But why, exactly, do the Tsimane never get heart disease?

What mummies can tell us

Plenty of exercise and a healthy diet are obviously excellent. However, previous research examining Egyptian mummies and mummies from other ancient cultures in Peru, the American Southwest, and the Aleutian Islands showed extensive heart disease, which appeared to be age-related. Why the difference?

It was suggested that heart disease in the mummies was related to inflammation from chronic infections. But the Tsimane also have indicators of chronic infections. Tuberculosis is common. Pneumonia, as well as intestinal roundworm and hookworm parasite infections are all prevalent. (Strangely, it seems that in some way roundworm infections can boost fertility in Tsimane women by mimicking the immune pattern of pregnancy.)

Long—but toothless—lives

Another study of longevity in Latin America provides a similar contradiction. “The Centenarians of the Andes,” by David Davies, highlights the villagers in Ecuador. In these remote mountainous regions, there are high levels of exercise and healthy diets. But the villagers also suffer from chronic dental infections linked to eating the sweet fruits that are a staple of their diet. The men and women over 100 years old are otherwise healthy but have lost all their teeth! In the case of the Andeans who live to be over 100, there is evidence that the soil nutrients in the hilly regions may be a factor. The soil actually contains gold.

So, a few conclusions start to emerge:

-Exercise is important.
-Eating real food is important.
-Chronic, non-life threatening infections are not necessarily dangerous.
-Family genetics and special features or qualities of individual locations may be very important.
-Avoiding the stresses and toxic exposures of modern society is probably key.

Bright spots on the environmental front

It is certainly very distressing to see the ongoing impact of societal intervention on our planet. The negatives are obvious, such as the continued bleaching of coral— especially the Great Barrier Reef, which is a crucial biomass.  But for all the negatives, there are some positives. Ken Nedimeyer, a researcher in Florida, has established the Florida Reef Resilience Program (FRRP). He discovered that by breaking healthy coral into fragments and creating a “coral garden,” it is possible to achieve very rapid coral regrowth. From these coral nurseries, it is possible to replant areas of dying reef and bring it back to life!

There are now programs to restore corals elsewhere, including Ofu in American Samoa and the Great Barrier Reef. On the island of Ofu, “warm-adapted” corals are being developed. For the Great Barrier Reef, corals adapted to ocean acidification are being developed in large “sea simulator” chambers. So, all is not lost.

In addition, progress was made recently in tackling the problem of chemical exposure and pollution at home. Roundup, the widely used weed killer, has been classified by California’s Environmental Health Agency as a “known carcinogen” or cancer-causing agent. Roundup is sprayed on home gardens, Little League baseball fields and, of course, most heavily on GMO (genetically modified organism) crops, such as corn and soybeans. More than 10 million pounds are applied each year in California. 

California’s decision is controversial, but is in line with a World Health Organization decision and recommendation from two years ago. The California decision is a warning, not a ban. However, a couple of school districts already have agreed to halt use on school grounds.

The bottom line

It can only be hoped that step-by-step progress can be made in understanding what impacts the health of the planet and ourselves, leading to positive interventions. With research and common sense, perhaps we can all live longer, healthier lives—although I’d like to know if exercise for less than seven hours a day can do the trick!

Image of Dr. Brian G.M. DurieDr. Brian G.M. Durie serves as Chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation and serves on its Scientific Advisory Board. Additionally, he is Chairman of the IMF's International Myeloma Working Group, a consortium of nearly 200 myeloma experts from around the world. Dr. Durie also leads the IMF’s Black Swan Research Initiative®.

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