UCSB anthropology researchers have found that hunter-gatherer and pastoralist diets result in lower rates of heart disease and related illnesses.

The team of researchers from UCSB and the University of New Mexico examined the blood pressure rates of modern-day Bolivian forager-horticulturalists in the Amazon’s Tsimane villages and found that their lifestyle exempts them from nearly universal age-related increases in blood pressure. The study, which ran from July 2002 to December 2010, was funded by the National Institute on Aging and determined that natural pastoralist diets result in lower blood pressure levels and decreased rates of resulting heart diseases such as stroke, heart attack and atherosclerosis.

The study was led by anthropology professor and Integrative Anthropological Sciences Unit Director Michael Gurven and its results were published in the current issue of the American Heart Association journal Hypertension.

Gurven said numerous aspects of the villagers’ naturalist lifestyles — such as regular exercise and a simple diet of corn, rice, fish and hunted game — likely result in improved overall heart health.

“The conditions in which they live are more similar to those likely experienced by our ancestors than those we find ourselves in today — greater exposure to pathogens, active lifestyle, high fertility and traditional diet,” Gurven said in a press release. “The human body may be better adapted to those conditions, so studying chronic diseases in these populations can be very insightful.”

Aaron Blackwell, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology who contributed to the study, said many medical professionals are intrigued by the villagers’ deviation from the typical pattern of age-related heart illness.

“It was surprising to the wider medical community. There’s been the assumption in the medical community that humans’ blood pressure increases naturally as a part of aging,” Blackwell said. “But increase in blood pressure with age is not necessarily inevitable.”

While the study suggests that people living in more naturalist conditions — similar to those of humans in prehistoric ages — are less likely to develop high blood pressure and hypertension, Gurven said modern lifestyle choices need not necessarily be abandoned.

“Our classic risk factors for heart attack and stroke, such as high blood pressure, are not universal,” Gurven said in a press release. “Nor does all modernization automatically lead to poorer health, contrary to popular beliefs.”