By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Mountain people are different. And I'm not talking about their reputed love of isolation and fondness for yodeling in some countries. I'm talking about their health. Over a period of several decades, scientists have discovered that people who live at high altitudes have strikingly lower rates of heart disease.
In the Andes Mountains of Peru, for example, a 1967 study published in the Boletín de la Oficina Sanitaria Panamericana of 300 autopsies of people who had lived at 14,000 feet (4260 km), found not a single case of heart disease. Zero heart disease. None. Nada. Zilch.
This compares rather favorably to the situation here below. In the US and in most developed countries, heart disease is the Number One killer, and it has been the Number One killer for as long as statistics have been kept. The only exception was in 1918, the year of the world-wide flue epidemic. Some 600,000 Americans die of heart disease every year.
Other than the Andes Mountains study, here are the other evidence that living at high altitudes protects you against developing heart disease.
People in New Mexico Who Live at Higher Altitudes Have 38% Less Heart Disease Than Those Closer to Sea Level
In 1977, a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine tried to find out whether residents of New Mexico who lived at higher altitudes had lower rates of heart disease.
The scientists divided up five counties New Mexico's according to their altitude. The study included white men and women over the years from 1957 to 1970. What they found is that those who live in counties at the highest altitude --- 2135 meters or 7000 feet above seal level--- had rates of heart disease 38% lower than those who live at the lowest altitudes of 914 meters (3000 feet above sea level).
How high up the mountain do you need to go in order to start to experience heart disease protection? The starting point appears to be 4000 feet (1200 kilometers) above sea level, according to this study.
Sleeping at High Altitudes for Just One Night Lowers Heart Attack Risk
Your risk of dying suddenly from a cardiac attack decreases sharply if you live at a high altitudes, even after just one night.
A study found that people who slept at an altitude of at least 1299 meters (4260 feet above sea level) even for one night had a heart attack risk that was 17.5% lower than those who slept at the lowest altitudes studies (below 700 meters).
Living at Higher Altitudes Improves Your Survival Rates Even After a Heart Transplant
In 2012, scientists from the University fo Utah studies survival rates of people who had had a heart transplant.
What they found is that those who live above 2000 feet above sea level have a 16% lower risk of dying after the transplant.
What Is It About Mountain Living That Protects Your Heart?
First let's cover the obvious. Climbing those hills day in and day out gives your heart a tremendous workout. Scientists measure your workout intensity in terms of how many metabolic units you burn. It takes about 5 to 7 of these METS do equal an intense enough workout to improve your heart.
But climbing up even a moderately steep hill at a slow pace takes 5 to 7 METS, a 2014 University fo Innsbruck stud says.
But hill-climbing won't explain why sleeping overnight for just one night also protects your heart against heart attacks. For that explanation, read on.
Intermittent Hypoxia --- The Secret Sauce to Mountain Living
The best way to explain intermittent hypoxia is to ask you to remember the last time you doubled over after running too hard. Remember that feeling that your sides were hurting? That's the pain caused when your lungs aren't getting enough oxygen.
Well, living at high altitudes does the same thing, only not as intensely unless of course you're climbing a very steep mountain.
It turns out that depriving your heart of oxygen ---just a little --- makes your heart develop protective mechanisms.
Even "one-time" or "sometimes" oxygen deprivation triggers the protective effects. For example, scientists have learned that downhill skiers experience intermittent hypoxia, as they go up the mountain in the ski lifts and they too have lower rates of heart disease, the 2014 study from University Innsbruck in Austria found.
The bottom line in all these studies is clear. To protect your heart against sudden heart attack or heart disease, you should try to experience a high altitude at some point in the year.