Too little exercise makes us age faster

The Tsimane people, an aboriginal group living in the lowlands of the Amazon, aged 40-80 regularly gather at a medical station in the village of Las Maras (Bolivia). Here, they undergo a rigorous testing process, including blood, urine, and stool samples, respiratory tests, arterial stiffness, and brain scans.

Hillard Kaplan, a professor of anthropology at Chapman University, has worked with the Tsimane people for 20 years to study how people in this society age, compared with the aging process of Americans and Europeans. From 2014-2019, Kaplan led a team of doctors, biochemists and anthropologists to more than 100 villages to collect data from people willing to share.

The Tsimane way of life is less industrialized than most areas of the world. The villages of Tsimane have no running water and most do not have electricity. Their job is to burn the fields for farming and hunting, almost like the ancient people. On the one hand, this community lacks modern healthcare infrastructure, but on the other hand, they are also not affected by the ills of urbanized life. This is the hypothesis of the Kaplan group.

The brain ‘died’ faster with less physical activity

The human brain is damaged over time. Cognitive function fades as brain cells shrink and die. Some of the dead cells are replaced, but many are not, so the brain gradually shrinks, starting around age 40. The condition, which is accompanied by diseases such as cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, affects more than 55 million people, according to the World Health Organization.

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Brain scans show that the brains of the Tsimane and Moseten people age more slowly than those of Americans and Europeans of the same age. Image: Shutterstock.

But our understanding of brain aging is skewed. Most of the research was done on white populations, living in more industrialized societies than racial and ethnic minorities. The Kaplan team has proven that groups like the Tsimane people don’t have the same high risk of cardiovascular disease as the rest of the world. “Can the same be true of the brain?” Kaplan said.

Now, they have evidence that the brains of the Tsimane and the Moseten in the same region age more slowly than the brains of those living in the industrialized world. All of the people studied were over the age of 40, because that’s when the brain ages noticeably. The Moseten were less active and therefore less active than the Tsimane.

A comparison of data obtained between a group of 1,165 indigenous people and a group of the same age from the US and Europe showed that the brains of Tsimane and Mosten aged more slowly, especially in old age.

The Tsimane brain loses about 2.3% of its volume per decade, the Moseten loses about 2.8%. Meanwhile, populations over the age of 40 in industrialized societies lose about 3.5% of their brain volume per decade. From 70 years old and above, the gap in aging rate between the two groups is even larger.

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