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High Altitude Means High Suicide Risk


Who wouldn't want to live in the beautiful mountains where the air is crisp and the winds are brisk? Well Perry F. Renshaw, M.D., Ph.D., MBA, professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah School of Medicine and colleagues, are saying that these high altitudes mean high suicide rates since it is well known that Western states have some of the highest average elevations in the nation and also the highest suicide rates. Are the two connected?

In 2006, the latest year for which national data was available, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oregon accounted for nine of the 10 highest suicide rates in the country. Alaska also was in the top 10 in suicide rates with Nevada having the nation’s highest rate.

Renshaw the study’s senior author and also an investigator wanted to know why high suicide rates in the West. “We thought it was reasonable to ask if some aspect of high altitude is related to suicide,” he said. “Altitude was the strongest factor we could find in our study. But we believe there’s also some other factor we can’t account for yet.”

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He and his team analyzed data from a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) database with information on 3,108 counties in the lower 48 states and District of Columbia, Renshaw and his colleagues concluded that altitude is an independent risk factor for suicide, and that “this association may have arisen from the effects of metabolic stress associated with mild hypoxia (inadequate oxygen intake)” in people with mood disorders.

In other words, people with problems such as depression might be at greater risk for suicide if they live at higher altitudes. The study also included the West’s higher rates of gun ownership, a well-recognized factor in suicide, and lower population density – suicide is more prevalent in rural areas – may be connected with altitude in influencing suicide rates. The study proved wrong and gun ownership and low population density cannot sufficiently explain the high suicides at higher altitudes.

William M. McMahon, M.D., professor and chairman of psychiatry at the University of Utahsaid, “Dissecting the many environmental and genetic factors leading to high rates of suicide in Utah and the surrounding mountain states has been a daunting task,” he said. “This study is a real milestone.”

Deborah A. Yurgelun-Todd, Ph.D., USTAR investigator, University of Utah professor of psychiatry, stated that “these findings provide a new and important area of investigation for understanding suicide risk.”

The reasons behind suicide are complex and there will never be one good answer however, gun ownership and mental illness like depressive disorders are factors in suicide.