Swiss researchers report that people who were born and lived in higher altitudes have a much lower risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases than people born and bred in the low lands.
Switzerland is the ideal place where this kind of study can be conducted since a large portion of this little country is mountainous. The researchers looked specifically at the inhabitants of German-speaking part of Switzerland, a group which is more or less homogenous ethnically and culturally and with regards to access to healthcare. The study covered areas with altitudes from 259 to 1960 m above sea level. By looking at data on sociodemographic, birth-location, current residency, and mortality rates, the researchers were able to analyze how altitude is related to health. The results of the analysis showed that
- An altitude difference of 1000 m was associated with a relative risk reduction in cardiovascular mortality of 22%.
- The same altitude difference was associated with a risk reduction of 12% in stroke.
It seems that people who were born and lived up in the mountains have some protective benefits from this geographic location, a benefit which they retain even if they, at some stage move down to the low lands. However, those who were born in low altitudes do not have this benefit and wouldn’t gain it even if they move up later.
So why are people in higher altitude healthier than those living closer to sea level? Some of the proposed reasons are:
- beneficial physiological adaptation of the heart to higher altitudes
- higher levels of physical activity
- good eating habits
- lower prevalence of clinical risk factors such as hypertension and high cholesterol
- climate-related factors, such as more exposure to ultraviolet light and vitamin D and less exposure to air pollution.
The beneficial effects of altitude seem to be more evident in men than in women, thus pointing again to climate-related factors: men are more likely to work outdoors and eng age in physical labor.
I and my family have been living in Switzerland for the last 3 years. We live in the lower altitudes, though but we try to go up the mountains as often as we can which luckily, are easily available by car, better by public transport or on foot. We were all born in the lowlands so I don’t think our cardiovascular risk factors will be greatly changed by the alpine climate. However, the fresh air and the physical exercise alone in going up the mountains can greatly benefit those who want to give it a try.