High Altitude Research Center seeks to solve the mysteries of health at altitude
FRISCO — With more than 30,000 people living at 8,000 feet and above, Summit County is a truly unique place. There are few communities of its size and history in North America, and relatively little is known about the physiological effects of living at elevation.
That makes Summit a prime area for medical research. St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, in association with the University of Colorado’s Altitude Research Center, are creating a “living laboratory” out of Summit with the High Altitude Research Center. The center will seek to gather data on the effects of high elevation on the human body, with the ultimate goal of solving the mysteries of elevation-related illnesses and effects on human physiology.
Dr. Marshall Denkinger, chief medical informatics officer for Centura Health, said the research center’s initial endeavor will be a two-year, population-based study that will gather basic demographic and vital physical information about permanent or long-term residents of the county.
“We’re looking at what prevalence of altitude-related or potentially altitude-related conditions look like in the community,” Denkinger said. “We want to look across race, age and gender and involve as many people as we can to get a representative sample of the community. We would love it to be five to eight thousand subjects.”
The study model and specifics of how the study will be administered have not been finalized yet, nor submitted for approval to an institutional review board. Studies that involve human subjects require approval from boards like these to ensure the integrity of the study, flesh out or remedy flaws in the research design, as well as ensure the study is done ethically and safely.
Denkinger said that while the details of the study are not finalized, he and the rest of the team behind the research center know what they want to get out of the study.
“A part of a population-based study is to find out what we don’t know,” Denkinger said. “We do know altitude affects oxygen levels in people’s blood stream, triggers adaptions such as increased red blood cells and affects the efficiency of how our body uses oxygen. Many people have sleeping difficulties at higher altitude. But there is no other high altitude population that’s over two generations old that can be studied this in depth.”
Denkinger said other studies have been done on high-elevation populations around the world but never with cohorts of more than 200 people nor studied long enough to come up with definitive conclusions. Denkinger said Summit County — with is existing community, facilities and desire for knowledge — is a perfect testing ground for a study on elevation health.
As far as what subjects the research center will be looking for, Denkinger said the study would prefer people who live in the county year-round or at least six months out of the year. There also would be a preference for people who have lived in the county and the surrounding area for at least two or three years. Aside from basic information, the study would gather vital medical information, such as height, weight, blood pressure and other data.
Much of the funding for the research center has been taken care of through local fundraisers, and individual and organizational donations. The research center still is pursuing grants for funding and expects to receive more grants after the study launches and the knowledge gleaned from it leads to more interest and grant money in the future.
Ultimately, Denkinger said the research center wants the study to be the foundation for other research and studies that offshoot from it, similar to the Framingham heart study that has followed three generations of subjects in the town of Framingham, Massachusetts. He sees the Summit County community’s support for the study as an essential element in its success, citing as an example the community’s interest in the Summit Daily’s 2018 Longevity Project, which investigated why people live longer in the mountains.
“I and the (High Altitude Research Center) are really excited to really give back to the community by giving them information that can make them more healthy,” Denkinger said. “People here care about health and wellness issues, about what impact physiological and atmospheric conditions may have on their health. We are really fortunate to have great providers, great health care facilities, amazing patients and community members who are really interested in taking that data and incorporating it into healthier lifestyle.”
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