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What Is the Relationship Between High Altitude and Heart Conditions?

heart condition at high altitude

High altitude locations typically offer an active lifestyle filled with a wide range of mountain activities for outdoor enthusiasts to engage in. As a result, these areas are often highly desirable as both a place to live and as a vacation destination. But how do these high altitude locations impact your heart health?

The answer to this question often depends on your specific situation. Living at high altitude has been found to have significant benefits on individuals who are in good heart health. However, traveling to these locations may be a cause for concern for individuals who currently experience heart conditions, requiring the need for certain precautions to be taken.

What Is Considered High Altitude?

According to the American Heart Association, anyplace under 6,560 feet above sea level is considered low altitude. Therefore, individuals visiting the Denver area aren’t in significant danger of the adverse heart health impacts commonly found at higher altitudes.

Locations that are between 6,560 to 9,840 feet above sea level are considered to be moderate altitude. This category includes many of the ski resorts in Colorado and Utah. Once you’re in a location that is above 9,840 feet above sea level, it is considered to be high altitude. This is where your body may experience significant altitude-related effects.

How Does High Altitude Impact Your Body?

When you’re at high altitude, your lungs receive less oxygen due to the thinner air. This forces your lungs and heart to work much harder to ensure the rest of your body receives the oxygen-rich blood it needs. At very high altitudes, this can cause people, including those who are very healthy, to develop symptoms such as dizziness, headaches and fatigue.

If you experience any cardiovascular health issues, high altitude can have an even greater impact on your body. For example, individuals with high blood pressure will typically experience significant increases in both heart rate and blood pressure shortly after arriving at a high altitude location. These issues are typically more pronounced at night and may continue throughout the first week spent at a higher altitude. In addition, the increase in heart rate may occur both at rest and during exercise.

Living at High Altitude May Benefit Your Heart Health

heart health benefits of living at high altitudeThere is evidence that living at high altitude may deliver important heart health benefits. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in partnership with the Harvard School of Global Health found that individuals living at high altitudes have a lower chance of dying from ischemic heart disease. In addition, they typically have a longer life expectancy.

The data on life expectancy was particularly significant. According to this study:

The researchers have offered several potential reasons for this phenomenon:

Based on these findings, the researchers have concluded that living at high altitude may offer important protections against heart disease deaths. While this study has certainly established a correlation between living at high altitude and heart health, there may be other explanations for why so many Colorado residents experience excellent heart health. In addition to being the highest state in the nation, Colorado also ranks as the fittest state, the leanest state and has the fewest deaths from heart disease.

Can Patients with Heart Conditions Travel to High Altitudes?

While the data indicates that living at high altitude is beneficial to maintaining optimal heart health, the reverse appears to be true for individuals with heart conditions who travel to high altitude from sea level. A report published by the Journal of the American Heart Association found that visiting high altitude locations may be dangerous for individuals with high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease.

According to the study, engaging in rigorous physical activities in high altitude locations (9,840 feet and higher) can place too much stress on the heart and blood vessels for people with heart conditions. This can result in a variety of symptoms, including:

Researchers recommend that people with high blood pressure, heart rhythm abnormalities, coronary heart disease or heart failure check with their cardiologist before traveling to high altitude locations to engage in activities such as skiing, mountain biking, hiking or climbing. Failure to take proper precautions or receive medical clearance to engage in intense physical activity at high altitude can result in serious, even potentially fatal issues.

Precautions to Take When Traveling to High Altitude with Heart Conditions

hydrating at high altitude with a heart conditionThere are certain general recommendations that all people with a heart condition should follow when traveling to locations at high altitude:

In addition, you may need to make additional accommodations if you’re planning to travel to high altitude with one of the following conditions:

South Denver Cardiology Can Help You Live a Heart Healthy Life

While Denver isn’t technically considered high altitude by the American Heart Association, people who live in this area frequently travel to high altitude locations to engage in their favorite mountain activities. If you live in the Denver area and would like to live a more heart healthy lifestyle that ensures it’s safe to exercise at high altitude, South Denver Cardiology Associates can help.

We offer diagnostic testing and comprehensive cardiology services to ensure any heart conditions are detected and treated in their earliest stages. Based on the results of your diagnostic testing, our team of cardiologists will recommend the ideal treatment plan to help you manage your condition. Individuals who are in good heart health can take advantage of our preventive cardiology clinic to make sure they maintain optimal heart health for years to come.

Contact us today to schedule a consultation. South Denver Cardiology Associates serves patients in the South Denver area and Littleton.

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As with any health concerns, your specific treatment program should be discussed thoroughly with your primary care physician as well as any specialists who may need to be consulted – like a cardiologist.

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