What Is the Relationship Between High Altitude and Heart Conditions?
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
There 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:
- 11 of out the top 20 counties for male life expectancy were located in Colorado and Utah
- 5 of the top 20 counties for female life expectancy were located in these two states
- The mean elevation for these counties was 5,967 feet above sea level
- Men in these counties lived between 75.8 and 78.2 years (1.2-3.6 years longer than men living at sea level)
- Women in these counties lived between 80.5 and 82.5 years (0.5-2.5 years longer than women living at sea level)
The researchers have offered several potential reasons for this phenomenon:
- Lower oxygen levels may activate certain genes which impact the ways in which heart muscles function
- Lower oxygen levels may produce new blood vessels which create new pathways for blood flow into and out of the heart
- Increased solar radiation at higher altitude makes it easier for the body to synthesize vitamin D, which has been shown to provide beneficial impacts on the heart
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:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
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
There are certain general recommendations that all people with a heart condition should follow when traveling to locations at high altitude:
- Gradually acclimate to high altitudes by spending one or more nights at an intermediate altitude before ascending to your high altitude location
- Exercise at a slower pace and lower intensity than you’re accustomed to at sea level
- Stay properly hydrated
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Get plenty of sleep
- Talk to your cardiologist about the need to potentially adjust heart and blood pressure medications while at high altitudes
In addition, you may need to make additional accommodations if you’re planning to travel to high altitude with one of the following conditions:
- Coronary artery disease – You may need to avoid traveling to high altitudes for at least six months after a heart attack, stenting or coronary bypass surgery. After you are medically cleared to travel, consult your cardiologist before engaging in strenuous activities such as skiing or hiking.
- Heart rhythm disorders – Exercising at high altitudes can potentially result in premature contractions and other arrhythmias. Consult your cardiologist to make sure strenuous exercise will be safe.
- Heart failure – High altitudes can increase levels of stress hormones in your blood, causing your blood pressure to rise significantly. Check with your cardiologist to make sure traveling to high altitudes is safe and if so, whether it is safe to exercise.
- High blood pressure – Blood pressure typically rises at high altitudes. Take the necessary steps to get your blood pressure under control before traveling, and ask your doctor whether you need to make adjustments to your medication while you’re at high altitude.
- Congenital heart disease – Defects impacting your blood flow from the right side of the heart to the left side can result in issues at high altitudes. Check with your cardiologist to make sure it’s safe to travel to high altitude locations if you have congenital heart disease.
- Pulmonary hypertension – High altitude locations pose particular dangers for people with pulmonary hypertension. If your doctor determines it’s safe for you to travel to high altitude, you may need to bring oxygen with you. In addition, you may need to stay below 6,000 feet to avoid a serious issue.
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.Sign Up