From the lowest basins to the highest peaks, elevation can affect your breathing.
Badwater Basin in Death Valley, California is the lowest point in the U.S. coming in at 282 feet below sea level. However, when it comes to low altitudes (below 4,000 feet), the negative and positive effects on health don’t begin until you start traveling up.
For those with a lung disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it’s important to know the potentially negative and positive attributes of Elevation and its Effect on Lung Disease.
With your health in mind, the Lung Institute is here to give you the information you need to be healthy when living in low or high elevations.
Long-Term Benefits of High Altitude
Contrary to popular belief, there is no less oxygen in the air at higher altitudes. Rather, the air pressure is substantially lower, meaning air particles are farther apart and oxygen in the air is less accessible.
However, when the body can adapt to this change in air pressure, it has wondrous effects on individual health.
Once the body is able to adapt by acclimation, there are several changes to respiration. The lungs become larger, which enables them to take in more oxygen. The body also produces more red blood cells and capillaries, enabling the lungs to more efficiently oxygenate the blood.
Among the highest cities in the U.S. – particularly in Colorado – there is a significantly lower overall mortality rate for permanent residents.
People living at an average elevation of 5,967 feet enjoy a lower chance of dying from ischemic heart disease, a higher rate of Vitamin D production, a longer life span and improved muscular performance.
As the highest state in the nation, Colorado is the leanest state, the fittest state, has the fewest deaths from heart disease and a lower incidence of colon and lung cancer compared to others.
Negative Effects of High Altitude
However, there are a range of negative effects resulting from high altitude, and these negative effects are generally considered the signs and symptoms of high-altitude sickness. Unfortunately, these effects are greater on those with lung disease such as COPD.
For altitudes above 4,900 feet, it’s been said that “even modestly lower oxygen levels in people with already impaired breathing and gas exchange may exacerbate hypoxia (a condition where your body is deprived of oxygen) and pulmonary hypertension [leading to death].”
Everyone breathes faster and deeper in high altitudes and due to the lower air pressure, this change in barometric pressure can cause a decrease in the amount of oxygen available, leading to hypobaric hypoxia.
Although many people travel to places of high altitude for leisure and sport, patients with lung disease may be at an increased risk for complications in this environment.
What Elevation and Its Effect on Lung Disease Means for You
Although there are some significant benefits to living in cities of high altitude, these conditions can be dangerous for those not properly acclimated to the conditions, particularly for those with chronic lung disease.
Christine Kingsley, APRN is the Health and Wellness Director at the Lung Institute where she focuses on providing helpful online resources for people looking for information on various lung diseases, breathing exercises, and healthy lifestyle choices. She advocates for holistic care that involves working with your doctor to explore all options including traditional and alternative care while focusing on diet and exercise as proactive measures.