New discovery reinforces basic message: ‘Stroke is preventable’
by Jennifer Mackenzie
Just this April, medical scientists made a first-ever discovery: a population in the Bolivian Amazon has the lowest reported levels of heart disease of any society recorded to date. Of particular note is that the Tsimane is a living population – not ancient ancestors.
What can a forager-horticulturalist tribe halfway around the world tell Onslow County residents about our modern day risk factors for heart disease and stroke?
Anna Bess Brown, Executive Director of North Carolina’s Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention Task Force, writes: “These findings, published in The Lancet, suggest coronary atherosclerosis can be avoided in most people by achieving a lifetime with very low LDL, low blood pressure, low glucose, normal body-mass index, no smoking, and plenty of physical activity.”
The new findings clearly indicate, “Stroke is preventable,” states Onslow Memorial Hospital’s Stroke Nurse Coordinator, Susan Taphous.
Taphous cites two important keys to stroke prevention: diet and exercise. You’ve heard healthcare providers talk about diet and exercise time and time again, right? But hold on –
Reporting in The Lancet, Prof Hillard Kaplan, PhD, and colleagues confirmed an 80-year-old Tsimane has the "vascular age" of an American in his or her mid-50s. Of Tsimane people over the age of 40, roughly 85 percent have no atherosclerosis. Americans have exactly the opposite statistics: 85 percent of Americans over the age of 45 do have atherosclerosis.
What kind of diet do you think a hunter-gatherer Tsimane in Bolivia has? What kind of exercise do you suppose he/she does? The answers may surprise you.
While the researchers found the Tsimane have “extraordinarily healthy hearts,” none of them resembles an ideal image of lean athleticism*. In fact, roughly a quarter of adult Tsimanes are overweight, says Michael Gurven, one of the study’s contributors.
However, the Tsimane do something the vast majority of Americans don’t: they stay on their feet, almost 90% of their day. They are not sitting in chairs all day long. A typical Tsimane walks about 7 1/2 miles each and every day. (In the time it takes me to write this article, my Tsimane sister has walked another mile.)
And diet? More than 70 percent of their calories come from carbohydrates packed with fiber: corn, cassava (the root of a tropical tree), plantains. [Point of note: please don’t go out and look for cassava – it requires special preparation to remove its trace cyanide.]
The other 30 percent of the calories a Tsimane eats are split evenly between protein and fat. But, Tsimanes eat no trans fats whatsoever. Many fast-food outlets use trans fats to deep-fry foods because trans fats can be reused many times in commercial fryers. The American Heart Association warns that trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, lower your good (HDL) cholesterol and increase your risk of developing heart disease and stroke.
Tsimane also eat almost no simple sugars. In contrast, Americans eat more than a gram of trans fat each day and 22 teaspoons of sugar. A small fast-food sweet tea contains 150 calories and 36 grams of sugar, which is 9 teaspoons, well over the maximum recommended per day. And sugar sneaks in everywhere, not just in sweet drinks. Bread, pasta sauce, salad dressing. The grocery list goes on.
“We often make extraordinarily poor food choices,” Taphous cautions.
“You can go into any supermarket and get pre-packaged, ready-to-eat food and think you are doing the right thing by avoiding fast food restaurants, but you may be buying tons of trans fats and sugar,” she explains. The reality is, “nothing is better than real food prepared at home.”
“Stroke is preventable, and stroke is treatable,” Taphous reaffirms. “We have seen a very significant decrease in stroke mortality in Onslow County over the years, and we can keep reducing those numbers.”
So before you start your workday, take a walk. During the day, get up every half hour and walk a little more – even just to get a drink of water. Walk at lunch. Walk after work. Walk after dinner. Cut out all trans fats (look for the words “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil”), and limit your sugar.
If the Tsimane can do it, so can we.
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