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Expand your high altitude smarts

BOB BERWYN
summit daily news
Summit Daily/Brad Odekirk
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Speaker:

High Altitude: Effects on Health and Physical Performance, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18, Summit County High School Auditorium.

SUMMIT COUNTY ” Any lift-line discussion on the effects of altitude is sure to elicit all sorts of free advice from well-meaning bystanders here in the High Country.

But local residents and visitors will have a chance to delve more deeply into the science behind the conventional wisdom this week, when one of the leading experts on high altitude health will launch a series of three public Keystone Symposia talks at the Summit High School auditorium Wednesday evening.

“I’m going to talk about acclimatization and what happens to the body at altitude,” said Dr. Benjamin Levine, a cardiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Presbyterian Hospital.

Levine is one of the world’s top researchers in the adaptation of the cardiovascular system to environmental stresses. He has consulted with the U.S. Olympic Committee, NASA, the Himalayan Rescue Association and the Denali Medical Research Project.

Levine said his lecture, “High Altitude: Effects on Health and Physical Performance,” will discuss how to use altitude to prepare for performance at sea level.

“You can think of altitude as a medicine,” he said, adding that experts in the field are currently engaged in a lively scientific dialogue about the best way to use that medicine to enhance athletic performance. One of the key questions still up for debate is the proper dosage, he explained.

“Athletes have used altitude to prepare at least since the 1968 Olympics (in Mexico City). Your body makes more red blood cells.

Blood building works,” Levine said, explaining that some of his research has focused on the “live high/train low” model of altitude training. The data so far suggests that the physiological adaptations realized at altitude can be advantageous to athletes, but high intensity workouts are better conducted at lower elevations to achieve improved performance.

That research has led to all sorts of innovative training approaches, with athletes like cyclist Lance Armstrong, for example, sleeping under a tent that simulates a high-elevation atmosphere, Levine said.

In other research, Levine has also found that prolonged and sustained endurance training can prevent stiffening of the heart, a condition associated with the onset of heart failure, the leading cause of hospitalizations for patients older than 65. About 40 percent of all hospitalizations for heart failure in patients 65 and older are due to diastolic heart failure, a condition in which the heart appears to pump normally.

“It appears that lifelong exercise training completely prevented the stiffening of the heart muscle that has been thought to be an inevitable consequence of aging. We found that it is aging in addition to being sedentary,” Levine said in an article in an online article in the Senior Journal (www.seniorjournal.com).

“If people can train and sustain it, a huge impact will be made on one of the biggest scourges of the elderly, which is heart failure with a normal ejection fraction, also called ‘diastolic heart failure’. The overall health of the population would radically improve if a larger number of people would make exercise a part of their daily life,” Levine said.

As for that conventional high-altitude wisdom?

Levine said most of the advice is fundamentally sound. Spending a day or two in Denver before hitting the slopes may help some people who are sensitive to the effects of altitude, but he cautioned that Denver’s elevation “doesn’t really induce a lot of acclimatization.”

“It probably helps some for people who are susceptible and have previously had episodes of altitude sickness,” he said.

Levine said there are a few medications available, with Diamox being the most effective.

“It helps speed acclimatization … and improves your ability to process carbon dioxide,” he said, adding that there is still some controversy over the proper dosage, not to mention side effects like tingling fingers.

Beyond that, Levine said the best plan of action is to take it easy the first day at altitude, staying reasonably well hydrated and eating moderately, including plenty of carbs.

Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at bberwyn@summitdaily.com.


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