Mountains have always been associated with the idea of strength, beauty and magnificence. Many people consider mountains a symbol of the untouched Earth and nature, and a source of endless health. There is even a common belief that people who live in the mountains live healthier lives and have stronger hearts. In fact, countless individuals and whole families have relocated to live at higher altitudes. Many athletes also choose the mountains to build endurance and increase the effectiveness of their training. So, the big question is: are high altitudes beneficial or dangerous for the heart and the body? The answer is, as it always is, not very clear. Living at a high altitude has numerous benefits, but it also has its own dangers and risks.
The benefits of living in the mountains
1. Weight loss.
The biggest benefit is weight loss. It was determined in the 1920s that living at high-altitudes causes significant weight loss. This was even a problem for mountain climbers attempting to climb to high altitudes while continuing to consume enough calories to survive. Their bodies burned calories - both from climbing and just from being at a high altitude. Even people who have spent more than a month in an altitude chamber with an unlimited supply of food have lost weight. This shows that it is the altitude that causes people to burn more calories. This idea is also supported by statistics that show that people who live in mountainous areas, such as Colorado, Nepal, or Peru, have a low obesity rate. Less obese people means more people with a healthy heart and body.
2. Low chance of coronary heart disease.
A study was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 1 showed that high altitudes are beneficial to the heart. They create new blood vesicles through which blood can flow to the heart. There is also a theory that a low oxygen level activates some genes that alter heart muscle function. These statements were backed by both research and statistics. Residents of Colorado (the mountainous state) have the lowest death rate from heart disease in all of the United States. A study was done to determine the connection between altitude and heart disease in various Greek villages. The results showed that people who live the villages located at high altitudes had lower coronary mortality rates than those living in low-altitude villages.
3. A lower chance of lung and colon cancer.
It was determined that living at high altitudes decreases one’s chances of developing lung or colon cancer. This is partially due to high solar radiation which helps the body synthesize Vitamin D.
The dangers of living in the mountains
1. Increased red blood cell count which can lead to blood clotting.
High altitudes can be associated with a decrease in oxygen hemoglobin saturation, which sets off a chain reaction ending in more red blood cell production from the bone marrow. The amount of the red blood cells increases and improves oxygen delivery and increases hemoglobin saturation. This in turn increases the viscosity of the blood which could possibly lead to hypertension, blood clotting, a stroke, or a heart attack.
2. Dangerous for people with obstructive pulmonary disease.
It has been determined that altitudes above 4900 feet create a lot of problems for people with pulmonary hypertension and hypoxia. These people already suffer from impaired breathing and gas exchange, and the low oxygen level in the mountains worsens their condition.
3. High risk of skin cancer.
High elevations go hand in hand with the increase of ultraviolet intensity which significantly increases one’s chances of getting skin cancer.
It is impossible to determine whether it is better to live at high or low altitudes. Each has its own set of benefits and dangers. It is therefore probably best to continue living at an altitude your body is used to, is most adapted to and functions well in. Changing the altitude may only put the body under stress and cause more harm than benefit.