Unlocking the mysteries of human health at altitude
In this year’s four-part series, we explore how high elevation affects the biological and physiological processes of the body, what performance gains can be experienced after spending time at altitude and why some people thrive here.
Pushing the limit: Understanding the body’s performance at high elevation
A visitor flies into Denver from sea level, rents a car and drives up to Summit County. They decide not to waste any time, and they go for a hike as soon as they get here. Not too long into the hike, they start feeling a little lightheaded, and a headache starts gnawing at their temples. Farther along, their breaths get shorter. Before they’re halfway up, everything in their body is telling them to stop. They’re nauseated, dizzy and their muscles are aching.
What they’re experiencing is called altitude sickness, and it’s caused by hypoxia, a lack of oxygen in body tissue. Understanding hypoxia is the key to unlocking many mysteries of human health altitude, including why so many people who live at high altitude are able to thrive.
Living at altitude: Exploring the effects on mountain town residents
Life at nearly two miles high has its quirks. The air is thinner, meaning it can be harder to breathe. Dehydration sets in a lot quicker. Ultraviolet radiation is harsher, because there’s less atmosphere protection between the sun and our skin.
Yet more than 140 million people worldwide live above 9,000 feet with another 40 million a year visiting places at high elevation.
One of the longest-living and healthiest populations in the country, Summit County’s 30,000 residents still face the known and unknown health challenges of living at altitude long term.
Many high elevation health dangers predominantly impact two of the community’s most vulnerable populations: children and the elderly. But a newly diagnosed respiratory condition is affecting mountain residents of all ages, even those who have lived here for a long time.
Building community: Identifying solutions to the mental health problem
The suicide rate in Summit and other mountain communities is consistently higher the national average. Of the 10 states with the highest suicide rates, eight were in the Rocky Mountains region: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
A variety of sociological factors — such as the rural and isolated nature of mountain communities, financial stress, a shortage of mental health providers and higher rates of substance and alcohol use — have been blamed as possible reasons for high suicide rates in the mountains.
Given the kaleidoscope of individual experiences and the complex nature of mental health, no single factor, or even group of factors, has been definitively proven to create the nexus for suicide, though many factors can have a part to play.
We know there is a higher rate of suicide at higher altitude, but the mystery persists as to why. Is it sociological, economic and cultural factors, or is there a biological link between high altitude environments and suicide or suicidal ideation?
Road map for success: What’s next for high altitude research?
Summit County is about to become a living laboratory for high elevation medical research, but the data might come too late for the county’s growing senior population, many of whom have been forced to leave the place they love because of a lack of care options.
Summit County does not have a single assisted living, skilled nursing or memory care facility where seniors can get the specialized care they require when they advance in age.