Telluride, in the San Juan mountains of southwest Colorado: image via wayfaring.info While living high, in the mountains that is, may expose you to more solar radiation than folks at ocean level, an expansive study conducted by the University of Colorado (CU) School of Medicine and the Harvard School of Global Health shows that there are some important health benefits of living at higher altitudes.
In an unusual approach to analysis, the researchers spent four years analyzing death certificates from every county in the U.S.
What they found was that the top 20 counties for longevity were located in Colorado and Utah and that each of the top counties had a mean elevation of 5,967 feet above sea level. Compared to those living at sea level, men in high places lived between 1.2 and 3.6 years longer and women between .5 and 2.5 years longer. Those living at high altitudes also had a lower rate of heart disease than those at sea level.
Dr. Benjamin Honegman, professor of emergency medicine at CU Medical and director of the Altitude Medicine Clinic, suggested two possible reasons for these results; one, that the genes that respond to lower oxygen levels may produce new blood vessels and change the way the heart functions; and the second reason may be that increased solar radiation may help the body to synthesize more vitamin D.
"If living in a lower oxygen environment such as in our Colorado mountains helps
reduce the risk of dying from heart disease it could help us develop new
clinical treatments for those conditions," Honegman said.
"We want to now look at these diseases in a more focused way so we can see the
mechanisms behind hypoxia and why they affect the body the way they do,"
Honigman said. "This is a public health issue in Colorado and the mountain West.
We have more than 700,000 people living at over 7,000 feet above sea level. Does
living at altitude change the way a disease progresses? Does it have health
effects that we should be investigating? Ultimately, we hope this research will
help people lead healthier lives."
Though high altitudes seem to have very positive health benefits, the
study also showed that those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
(COPD) should not be living above 4.900 feet, for higher levels are
detrimental to their disease.
Colorado, which is considered the 'highest state' in the U.S., also has the leanest and fittest population according to national reports.