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High altitude living lowers chance of death from heart disease

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Heart disease study

People living at high altitudes less likely to die from heart disease, live longer

In a large study, researchers found people who live at high altitudes have less risk of dying from heart disease and have longer life spans. The findings, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, suggest living in a lower oxygen mountain environment and closer to the sun may have distinct health benefits.

High altitude protects heart and could be cancer protective

According to Benjamin Honigman, MD, professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and director of the Altitude Medicine Clinic, “Lower oxygen levels turn on certain genes and we think those genes may change the way heart muscles function. They may also produce new blood vessels that create new highways for blood flow into the heart."

Honigman notes, living in the mountains might also protect from cancer because of better synthesis of vitamin D that comes from solar radiation in higher altitude areas.

Top counties found in Utah and Colorado for life expectancy

Among the top counties with the highest life expectancy - eleven for men and five for women - were Colorado and Utah. Each county had an average elevation of 5,967 feet above sea level.

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The researchers also note Colorado, the highest state in the nation, has the fewest deaths from heart disease, lower rates of colon and lung cancer and is the fittest and leanest, compared to others.

The study that was one of the most comprehensive to find the benefits of mountain living found the men lived 1.2 to 3.6 years more and women 0.5 to 2.5 years longer, compared to those living at sea level. The effect of living at high altitude was negligible when the researchers took into account socio-economic factors, solar radiation, smoking and lung disease.

Other findings show those with lung disease fare poorly at elevations above 4900 feet. The authors write, "Even modestly lower oxygen levels in people with already impaired breathing and gas exchange may exacerbate hypoxia and pulmonary hypertension" that can lead to death.

Altitude research analyzes death certificates in every U.S. county

The research team that also included Robert Roach, PhD, director of the School of Medicine's Altitude Research Center, Deborah Thomas, PhD, a geographer at the University of Colorado Denver and Majid Ezzati of the Harvard School of Global Health. The study was conducted over 4 years and included analysis of death certificates in every county in the U.S., looking at health issues, cause of death and socioeconomic status.

The investigators hope to use the study findings to determine how lower oxygen living that occurs at higher elevations affects the body, especially hypoxia that is a public health issue in Colorado. Honigman says they can help people live healthier lives by understanding how living at high altitude changes the way a disease progresses.

J Epidemiol Community Health: doi:10.1136/jech.2010.112938
"Altitude, life expectancy and mortality from ischaemic heart disease, stroke, COPD and cancers: national population-based analysis of US counties"
Majid Ezzati, Mara E M Horwitz, Deborah S K Thomas, Ari B Friedman, Robert Roach, Timothy Clark, Christopher J L Murray, Benjamin Honigman