Mountain states such as Colorado and Utah have healthy reputations, largely because they attract and inspire health-conscious people. But could it be that living at high altitudes makes you healthier? Maybe, according to a recent study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
The researchers analyzed the relationship between elevation, life expectancy and mortality rates from chronic diseases for hundreds of counties in the continental U.S. They found that the 10 million Americans residing in counties above 4,900 feet live one to three years longer on average than those living near sea level. The higher the altitude, the greater the longevity benefit.
That does not mean that the altitude was responsible, of course. In fact, when the researchers adjusted the data for factors such as income, population density, race/ethnicity and smoking, the longevity difference disappeared. However, when they looked at specific diseases, they found that, even after the statistical adjustments, people (especially women) living at high altitudes were less likely to die from heart attacks. On the other hand, there was an increased risk of dying from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
The “thinner air” (that is, lower oxygen levels) at higher altitudes may improve cardiac efficiency, have beneficial vascular effects and be cardioprotective in other ways, the researchers speculated. At the same time, even modestly lower oxygen levels can be hazardous for people with already-impaired breathing, as in COPD.
If you live at a higher elevation, this should come as good news, as long as you don’t have COPD.