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Keeping your heart healthy at altitude

Health View
Valley View Hospital

The study of high altitude and its effect on the human body is as old as the mountain sickness first suffered by explorers as they climbed above 10,000 feet. These adventurers experienced headache, nausea, panting, fatigue and bouts of insomnia. When traveling to high mountain areas, our bodies initially develop inefficient physiological responses. There is an increase in breathing and heart rate, which can double, even while resting. The rise in pulse rate and blood pressure is due to our hearts pumping harder to get more oxygen to our cells. These are stressful changes, especially for people with weak hearts. How we experience altitude depends on duration of acclimatization, exercise intensity, age and genetic factors.

High altitude is generally defined as an elevation above approximately 10,000 feet. In a healthy person, clinically significant changes in the body’s physiological responses to altitude are difficult to observe at elevations lower than this. However, a significant change in atmospheric pressure begins at 8,000 feet and people can experience the effects of altitude immediately. For instance, Glenwood Springs is at 5,761 feet and is considered moderate altitude (anywhere from 4950-8250 feet). For anyone traveling from sea level to the Roaring Fork Valley, the change in altitude could be an experience much like if you hiked Mount Sopris (12,966 feet): shortness of breath, muscle fatigue, and the onset of dehydration arising sooner. These physiological responses to altitude increase the demand on the heart.

Altitude can also exacerbate the symptoms of heart disease. Due to the low oxygen, oxygen pressure, humidity and temperature, symptoms that may lead to heart problems and ailments can appear more quickly at high altitude. These symptoms include irregular heartbeats and an irregular shortness of breath. It is advised that individuals with unstable cardiac disease should seek medical counsel prior to exercise at high altitude.

The following are a few tips to consider while at moderate and high altitude:

• Avoid overexertion by adjusting your pace

• Stay hydrated to help the body acclimatize

• Decreasing sodium intake

• Avoid going too high too quickly.

Keeping your heart healthy at altitude is no different from at sea level: exercise regularly, avoid smoking, keep your body weight and cholesterol in check, and monitor blood pressure. Individuals with known cardiovascular disease planning to ascend to high altitude or exercise at elevation are advised to consult their physician.

For more information on keeping your heart healthy at altitude in the Roaring Fork Valley, contact the Valley View Heart & Vascular Center at 970-384-7290.


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