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Mayo Clinic team to monitor hearts and lungs of Mt. Everest climbers

Ernie Shannon's picture
Mt. Everest

Mount Everest’s slopes have siphoned the last drop of strength of many a climber demanding endurance sometimes at super human levels. Below zero temperatures made worse by ferocious wind storms at altitudes normally inhospitable to the human body challenge life and limb of even the most able athlete. Consequently, otherwise healthy explorers can experience a physiological event that mirrors heart failure, something noticed by the Mayor Clinic’s Dr. Bruce Johnson.

“Heart failure patients, when they’re trying to exercise here on sea level, it’s like being up on a mountain trying to exercise,” Johnson explained. His research regarding the similarities between patients struggling with heart disease and extreme mountain climbers has led to an expedition by him and team of six Mayo Clinic researchers to the foot of Everest, one of the world’s wonders.

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The team consisting of Johnson, Drs. Amine Issa, Bryan Taylor, and Doug Summerfield, along with research assistant Alex Kasak and Joel Streed, an embedded reporter, left for the country of Nepal yesterday and hope to arrive at the famed mountain within several days. Their intent is to gather data from a group of extreme climbers who will be connected to a variety of monitors recording the impact of the high altitude climb on their bodies. To prepare for the arduous trek, the climbers underwent tests to determine normal heart and lung function and oxygen levels providing a baseline once on the mountain ascent. Of particular interest to Johnson is how lungs adapt to fluid changes, a problem that frequently bring heart patients into the hospital and climbers to the emergency room. Weight loss is another area of concern.

“We (also) think there’s a connection to weight loss suffered by both heart patients, sufferers of chronic disease and climbers unrelated to diet and exercise,” said Johnson.

Specially designed monitoring equipment will track changes to body functions on the climbers as they slowly ascend into extreme altitude conditions. The team’s hope is that the resulting data will provide insight into new treatment options for people with heart failure and other chronic conditions. The Mayo Clinic team is partnering with representatives from the National Geographic Society, The North Face, an outdoor equipment company, and researchers from Montana State University who are interested in geological aspects of the climb. They expect to return from Himalayan mountain chain by May 15.

Johnson has conducted similar studies at the South Pole and at Mt. Aconcaugau in South America.
Image source of Mt. Everest: Wikipedia