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Living at High Altitude: Tips for Better Health

The San Juan Mountain area is at an elevation of about 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level, and this makes a difference in the way the human body works. There is about 30 percent less oxygen here than at sea level, the radiation from the sun is stronger, and the air is drier. All of this puts added stress on the body—which, for healthy people who live here long-term, is actually a good thing. In fact, a four-year study by the University of Colorado School of Medicine found that living at high altitudes appears to lower one’s risk of death from heart disease, and people living up high live longer overall—0.5 to 3.6 years longer. More studies need to be done to find out exactly why, but researchers believe along the adjustments our bodies go through to work with the lower oxygen levels, along with the extra vitamin D our bodies make due to the sun’s stronger radiation,  probably play a part in better heart health.

On the other hand, high altitude living is uncomfortable for newcomers until their bodies adjust, and for people with certain health conditions, it can be downright dangerous, even deadly. If you’re planning to move to the Colorado mountains, or if you’re an old-timer, but you’d like to invite friends and family from the lowlands to come visit, keep these health tips in mind:

When you (and your visitors) first arrive:

People with any medical conditions should check with their doctors before traveling to high altitudes. Heart and lung conditions, in particular, may be worse up here, and the altitude can affect how medications work. You may also want to consult with a doctor who works at high altitudes. Here, Dr. Peter Hackett of the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride gives recommendations and invites people to call the institute for individualized advice.

  • Give the body time to adjust. People coming from low altitudes should spend a day or two in a place at a moderate altitude, like Denver or Ridgway, before going up to higher towns like Telluride or enjoying outdoor activities higher up. The human body can adjust, processing oxygen more efficiently, if you give it a little time.
  • Rest for the first day at each level. When going from low (sea level) to moderate (around 5,000 feet) altitude, or from moderate to high (around 7,000 feet or above), take it easy for at least one day.
  • Drink very little alcohol. Dr. Hackett explains that alcohol lowers our breathing rates, making it even harder for our bodies to get enough oxygen. Especially in the first 24 hours, imbibe very little, if at all.
  • Know that mild symptoms will pass within 24 to 36 hours. These include nausea, headaches, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping. If these symptoms go on longer, call a doctor to find out whether something more serious is going on.
  • Watch for symptoms of acute mountain sickness. If you or your visitors have a feeling of tightness or fullness in the chest, grayish or bluish skin, shortness of breath while resting, a wet cough (or coughing blood), inability to walk a straight line, confusion, or behavioral changes, get medical attention immediately.


When you live here:

These tips are important for long-timers and newcomers alike:

  • Always wear sunscreen. The air is thinner and we’re closer to the sun up here. It’s easier to burn, and even tanned skins will be at greater risk for skin cancers. Slather on high-SPF sunscreen, and wear protective clothing.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. The air is simply drier here. You’ll always lose more water as you breathe and sweat. Get used to drinking more water and other low-sugar, low-alcohol liquids.
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