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How living the high life affects your health

EMILY AUGHINBAUGH, Sun News Service

You’re traveling to the Truckee-Tahoe area, another dimension. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead.

Your next stop: the Thin Air Zone.

At around 6,200 feet above sea level, Truckee residents and visitors cannot breathe in oxygen as easily as they can at lower elevations.

Although the area air still contains 21 percent oxygen, people aren’t able to take in as many molecules of the gas with each breath.

As the amount of oxygen decreases in the lungs, blood becomes less efficient at acquiring and transporting oxygen. So no matter how fast a person breathes, attaining normal blood levels of oxygen is not possible.

In order to compensate for this, the body produces more red blood cells, or hemoglobin.

This is not the only physiological difference. Often people experience unpleasant physical changes, especially if the ascent is fast.

Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness, and high altitude pulmonary edema – fluid in the lungs, are possible. However, South Lake Tahoe doctors say they haven’t seen too many severe problems in healthy people who vacation at high altitudes.

Dr. Robert Rupp, an orthopaedic surgeon at Lake Tahoe Orthopaedic Institute in Round Hill, said Lake Tahoe is not so high that people would experience more serious illnesses like pulmonary edema. However, Rupp said he has seen problems with people visiting from off the hill, who already suffer from pulmonary or cardiac disease.

“The elevation does affect some people who come up from sea level and who already have health complications,” Rupp said. “But in most people it doesn’t seem to cause a problem.”

According to the High Altitude Medicine Guide Web site, there are some normal physiological changes that occur in people who travel to a higher altitude. Changes in breathing patterns, increased urination and insomnia are common symptoms.

Rupp said people who are born and live at higher elevations naturally have more red blood cells than those who live at sea level, but it is neither helpful nor harmful in most cases.

The Mayo Clinic released a study three years ago that found only about 1 percent of babies born at high altitudes suffer from too many red blood cells, a condition called polycythemia. Problems associated with polycythemia are rarely severe and usually resolve themselves within a few days without treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic Web site.

Dr. Thomas Goldenberg, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Tahoe Women’s Care, said he hasn’t had any patients whose babies have suffered from polycythemia.

Goldenberg said if women don’t travel back and forth from higher altitudes their baby’s health is fine. However, he does advise women not to travel too far off the hill after 30 weeks of pregnancy.

Goldenberg said South Shore expectant mothers can go as far as Gardnerville or Carson City but not much farther. He said this protects the mothers from a premature birth or ruptured membrane that can accompany great descent or ascent in a short time span.

Goldenberg said slightly pre-term babies may have more problems at high altitudes than at sea level, but there have been no recorded differences in full-term births.

Physicians have noted similar growth rates and ultrasound data for altitude and sea level babies, Goldenberg said.

“Basically what it boils down to is if you live at altitude and give birth at altitude there is no real difference,” he said. “The baby is just as healthy.”

Delivering mothers aren’t the only ones who have to stick to the element in which they’ve trained for their big day.

Competitive athletes are also affected by the lack of oxygen they can take in with each breath at altitude.

Alan Barichievich, a physical therapist at Barton Memorial Hospital, advises athletes to train wherever they plan to compete.

“If you train at altitude your body is going to adapt to altitude,” Barichievich said. “You’ll develop red blood cells faster.

“But athletes who train at sea level can train harder without the fatigue levels of athletes at altitude.”


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