High altitude living seems to have some health benefits, but it takes some adjustment to avoid illness. Here’s what you need to know about living or traveling to higher elevations.
Have you always yearned to enjoy the peace and tranquility of living in the mountains? High altitude living offers a variety of advantages such as the scenic views and fresh air, but also carry with it certain health risks and advantages. Before vacationing or relocating to the pristine mountains of Colorado, what health factors do you need to consider?
Moving to or visiting an area at high altitude when you’re accustomed to living at sea level carries with it certain health risks. At higher altitude the air pressure is lower and the number of oxygen molecules taken in with each breath is reduced. This effect usually doesn’t become significant until a person reaches an altitude above 8,000 feet; although the altitude at which symptoms occur can vary between individuals.
With high altitude living, the body gradually acclimates to the lower air pressure and decreased oxygen intake by elevating the heart and breathing rate and increasing production of red blood cells to carry more oxygen to the body. Until this acclimation process occurs, high altitude living can give rise to a variety of unpleasant symptoms characteristic of altitude or mountain sickness.
The Symptoms of Altitude Sickness and How to Avoid Them
The symptoms of altitude sickness include nausea, lightheadedness, dizziness, headache, swelling in the feet, and sleep problems. More severe, potentially life-threatening, symptoms can occur in some poorly acclimated people who travel to higher altitudes. These include problems with coordination and balance, difficulty thinking, problems breathing, shortness of breath, and headache. These symptoms usually occur when a susceptible person enters an altitude above 10,000 feet.
The way to avoid these symptoms if you plan on doing any high altitude hiking is to allow the body to acclimate to each altitude level before moving higher. This means spending two or three days at a given altitude to allow the body time to make the physiologic changes needed to function properly. If symptoms develop, ascending 1,000 to 2,000 feet and remaining there until symptoms resolve can prevent more serious symptoms from developing. Approaching higher altitudes slowly and allowing the body at least two days to adjust is the key to preventing illness at high altitudes. Dehydration can also be an issue, so fluids should be readily available and drank frequently.
The Good Aspects
The good news about high altitude living is that some studies suggest it can lead to a longer life. A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health showed that those living at altitudes above 3,000 feet in Greece had a longer life expectancy than those living closer to sea level. Not only did they live longer, but their heart disease rate was almost half of their lower lying counterparts. Researchers believe that the adjustments the body makes for high altitude living may be beneficial for overall heart health. When exercising at higher altitudes, the body has to work harder which helps to strengthen the heart and improves stamina and endurance.
The Bottom Line?
High altitude living and high altitude vacationing puts additional stress on the body and should be approached with caution. Drinking lots of liquids and spending several days at each level about 8,000 feet before proceeding reduces the risk of illness. People with medical problems, especially heart and lung diseases should avoid traveling to high altitudes without being cleared by a doctor. Enjoy the mountains, but enjoy them safely.