UCSB anthropology professor Michael Gurven has discovered that chronic inflammation may not be an indicator of cardiovascular disease — a discovery that contradicts currently accepted medical research.

The project, which began in 2001, focuses on the relatively isolated Tsimane tribe in Bolivia to study adult health in traditional lifestyles compared to their modern equivalent.

Gurven said that the project was ignited by his desire to find out why humans have such unique and interesting traits in relation to their primate relatives.

“To address these questions, we set up this project in Bolivia,” Gurven said. “This allows us to look at one tribe and try to look at more things simultaneously, to look at people who are more typical of our ancestral past.”

Eric Schneiter, an anthropology PhD student at UCSB, is currently researching the question of the role of older adults in the uniquely long human life span. Both Gurven and Schneiter said this finding is actually an extension of a much broader and involved study.

“One important thing that this is showing is that even though this group experiences high levels of inflammation, they don’t have the heart and circulatory problems, which are big killers in the United States and Western World.” Schneiter said. “This is an indicator
that different environments involve a different aging process.”

According to Gurven, the Tsimane anecdotally had not appeared to be suffering from heart disease. Through this study, Gurven took a systematic approach by measuring the blood pressure in the ankles and arms of subjects in order to detect indicators of arteriosclerosis.

“Our first step was to look at blood pressure in both the ankles and the arms, where blood is flowing freely.” Gurven said. “There shouldn’t be a significant difference in upper extremities and lower extremities unless the arteries are blocked.”

Gurven said in the United States a large amount of the adult population suffers from high blood pressure. However, Gurven’s study, recently published in the journal PLoS ONE, found this was not the case with the Tsimane.

“In the Tsimane, looking at around 400 people, not a single person showed … any high blood pressure.” Gurven said.

The significance of this discovery is that in the West, the principle that inflammation is associated with danger has become widely accepted, according to Gurven.

“The fact that there were high levels of inflammation but no indicator whatsoever of heart disease was a big surprise,” Gurven said. “[It’s] not just an interesting find for anthropology, but a really important finding for biomedical science.”

UCSB anthropology PhD student Melanie Martin said the research has used a variety of emphases and has great significance in the field and beyond.

“It’s a really exciting project and has a lot of implications for human health and human aging.” Martin said. “It’s great that it’s a really interdisciplinary project, so there’s a lot of collaborators involved, so it’s been a great project.”