Summit County to become a ‘living laboratory’ for high altitude medical research
High Altitude Research Center expects to kick off its population study later this year
For the Summit Daily
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The High Altitude Research Center will serve as a living laboratory for understanding optimal health while residing at high altitude. It will allow physicians, community members and scientific experts to collaborate in innovative studies with far-reaching significance. The official launch of its population health study is expected in late 2019.
It’s widely known that altitude has effects on the body — people from lower elevations often experience symptoms such as dehydration, sleep difficulties, higher blood pressure, fatigue and more — but a large-scale local study aims to dig deeper to determine how living at high altitude affects long-term health.
“This hasn’t been done with a large, population-based study, to our knowledge, anywhere in the world,” said Dr. Marshall Denkinger, chief medical informatics officer and lead investigator for Centura Health.
Denkinger is referring to the “living laboratory” that’s being created in Summit County by the High Altitude Research Center, a collaboration between Centura Health, St. Anthony Summit Medical Center and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary Medicine. Kicking off later this year, the High Altitude Research Center will be studying Summit County residents to learn more about the effects of high altitude on the human body.
“The idea is to provide useful information to people who live in the community to use for their healthcare decision-making,” Denkinger said, “and to use this broad-based data to guide further, more specific research about high altitude’s health effects and medical conditions.”
Why Summit County?
Summit County’s life expectancy, 87 years, is the highest in the nation, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Combine that with the fact that Summit County’s population is young, meaning they’ve only been living at high altitude for a generation or two, and you’ve got an interesting group of people for a high altitude-based study, Denkinger said.
“The population in Summit County was about 2,500 people in the mid-1960s, and now we have 30,000 residents — plus another 10,000 to 12,000 people in surrounding areas — living at or above 9,000 feet,” Denkinger said. “Summit County sort of chose itself for this study by virtue of the fact that it is the youngest high-altitude population in the world.”
Researchers are excited about learning what we don’t already know about high altitude’s effects on health.
“We have some window into the future of what we’re going to find based on what we already know — but what is the prevalence of altitude-related medical conditions, and what are those conditions,” Denkinger said.
Researchers want to study Summit County residents who live here year-round, or at least for six months out of the year. They’ll also be looking for residents who have been here for at least two or three years.
The High Altitude Research Center will be kicking off a coordinated public campaign very soon to provide detailed information to the community and begin the process of screening for eligibility.
“In order to be a valid study, it should be representative of the population of Summit County,” he said. “From a large group of people, we will identify a slightly smaller group of people, and there will need to be enrollment criteria that ensures we don’t get any selection bias.”
Using this sample population, crossing all boundaries of gender, age and ethnicity, researchers will begin to understand basic and more complex areas of the population’s health. Participants will answer a detailed questionnaire and then subsequent steps will be determined as the study progresses.
The High Altitude Research Center is still working on the specifics, such as the methodology, participants and other details which must be approved by an Institutional Review Board (ethical review).
Denkinger said there’s been a painstaking attention to detail during these preparations for the study.
“We have to take great care that we design this correctly. From a scientific standpoint, the study must be solid,” he said. “Researchers never want people coming back and picking apart their study’s design or statistical analyses.”
The expectation is that the Institutional Review Board approvals will come sometime in October, which means the High Altitude Research Center can launch its living laboratory soon thereafter.
“We’re really excited to give back to the Summit community incredibly helpful information about how to improve residents’ life and health, and potentially longevity, at high altitude,” Denkinger said.
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