St. Luke’s cardiologist finds ‘healthiest hearts’ during study in the thick of Bolivian jungle

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Perhaps the key to preventing heart disease has been found in a jungle.

A cardiologist from one metro hospital recently finished a study in a remote Bolivian village. That primitive tribe, the Tsimane people, live in Western Bolivia near the city of San Borja, and, according to this study, has the healthiest hearts ever tested.

They live like hunter-gatherers. That's what Dr. Randall Thompson from the St. Luke's Mid-America Heart Institute in Kansas City was seeking. In 2015, Dr. Thompson spent three, eight-day stretches living among the Tsimane, studying their diets and lifestyle.

The Tsimane tribe is considered one of the most primitive civilizations still in existence.

"They're like us, yet they're different from us," Dr. Thompson said on Monday.

Different, according to Thompson's study, because they have few risk factors for heart disease.

"The Tsimane have the lowest coronary calcium scores of any population ever tested," Dr. Thompson said.

The findings of Dr. Thompson's 2015 study have just been published, and presented to the American College of Cardiology. The Tsimane people, who live in the Amazon rain forest, keep a very low fat, low sugar diet, while maintaining a highly active lifestyle. Their diet includes high levels of protein, which, at times, come from consumption of monkey meat and piranha, and low amounts of carbohydrates.

As a result, their arteries appear to be 26 years younger than those found in the average American.

"With their lifestyles, they have virtually no pre-clinical coronary disease. Not even the kind of residue you can pick up on a very sensitive test like a CAT scan," Dr. Thompson told FOX 4 News.

Many of the Tsimane tribe members traveled hundreds of miles, both by boat and jeep, to be tested by Thompson's medical team. He says their hearts are the healthiest he's ever seen.

"It does show that coronary heart disease is ultimately preventable or avoidable," Dr. Thompson said.

Dr. Thompson says exercise plays a huge role in the heart health of the Tsimane tribe. He says the average American records about 6,000 footsteps per day. The Tsimane tribe averages roughly three times that amount. His study of the Tsimane peope was recently written up in the Washington Post, as well as other national media outlets.