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Healthy lessons to learn from ancient way of life

12:00am | & Health

For many years now it has become clear that, for people in the developed world, modern life is steadily killing us.

Consuming processed food laden with sugar, salt and fat, generally eating too much, exercising too little, smoking, drinking to excess, doing stressful high-pressure jobs and breathing air polluted by fumes from industry and transport; these are all features of modern living which impact heavily on the health of human beings.

Widespread obesity, heart disease, certain cancers and many other medical conditions are all directly linked to our lifestyle choices. At the same time, we increasingly rely on advances in medicine and surgical techniques to patch us up and keep us going for longer, repairing the damage we inflict on ourselves.

For some people in the world, adopting a more wholesome lifestyle is not a matter of choice – it is already the way they live and have always lived. And though it might be a harder life, it is also a healthier one. According to a new study just published in respected medical journal The Lancet, the healthiest hearts in the world belong to the tribal Tsimane people, who live a simple life in the forests of Bolivia.

Largely untouched by the outside world, the Tsimane’s way of life has barely changed in thousands of years. Living alongside the Maniqui River in the Amazon rainforest, around 16,000 Tsimane (pronounced chee-may-nay) live by hunting, fishing and small-scale family farming. Scientists who made the long and arduous journey into the rainforest discovered that while their way of life is basic and rudimentary, it also makes them exceptionally healthy.

Around 17% of the Tsimane’s diet is lean meat from game such as wild pig, tapir and a large rodent called capybara. About 7% is freshwater fish from the river and the rest is mostly rice, maize, a local root vegetable similar to sweet potato, plantains (similar to banana), and topped up with locally foraged fruit and nuts.

As well as their healthy diet, the Tsimane lead very physically active lives, even into old age. They are always busy farming, hunting and fishing, looking after children, cooking and carrying out the chores of everyday life. Few of them smoke or drink alcohol and even for those that do, it is only occasionally. They live in small communities and have a generally positive outlook on life, living for the present rather than worrying about the future. Stress and anxiety are virtually unheard of.

The end result is that they are a remarkably fit and healthy people. Scientists researching the health of their hearts looked for a build-up of coronary artery calcium (CAC), which clogs up blood vessels and presents a significant risk of heart attack. By the age of 45 almost all the 705 Tsimane people studied had no CAC in their arteries and even at 75 two-thirds of them remained CAC-free. By contrast, in America a quarter of under-45s have a build-up of CAC in their arteries and by 75 that figure has risen to 80% of the population.

Researchers even speculated that intestinal worms which the Tsimane have in their gut could be beneficial to their long-term health. When a body gets an infection it triggers the immune system, which attacks the infection but also causes swelling around the infection site. This inflammation can in turn restrict blood flow and increase the risk of heart problems. The Tsimane’s intestinal worms have the effect of dampening the reactions of their immune system, so the inflammation is far less pronounced.

Given their lack of modern medicines such as antibiotics, the Tsimane live remarkably long and healthy lives, the main causes of death being physical injuries and complications arising from them, or just old age.

Of course it is too much to expect that people in the developed world will abandon their comparatively luxurious lifestyles and return to an almost prehistoric way of life as hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers. But there are certainly lessons to be learnt from the Tsimane in terms of diet, exercise and the joy of a simple, stress-free, community-based life.

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