Living At High Altitude

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray

We have lived at 9,800’ elevation for almost 20 years and residing at high elevation is physiologically different than living at sea level. Our body reacts much differently at this altitude than it does at sea level. Going from near sea level to anything over 7000’ elevation our bodies go through a noticeable change.

Altitude Sickness

In addition to the beautiful majestic mountains and pure fresh air there is a diminishing amount of oxygen that our bodies need to operate efficiently. There is a condition known as altitude sickness which can be temporary or long lasting. Not everyone will immediately adjust to the ‘thinner air’ regardless of their physical fitness and may suffer headaches, lack of energy, dizziness, nausea and trouble sleeping. Altitude sickness can be moderate to severe. In the severe cases it is best to quickly get to a lower elevation.

Diminishing Oxygen At High Elevation

After about 7000’ altitude the saturation of oxygen in our body tends to plummet. The body needs to adapt to the lower amount of oxygen available and that can be either short term or long term depending on the individual person. Some people’s bodies adapt to the lower oxygen levels more quickly and they can perform normally after a short period of time. In other cases some do not adjust well and we see those folks carrying around portable oxygen bottles to get the necessary oxygen their bodies need to function properly. It is claimed that some people who live at higher elevations have a lower mortality rate and have less obesity but I surmise that could be attributed more to outdoor physical activity.

Physiological Changes At High Altitude

We have noticed that we both breathe deeper which is possibly related to the thinner air at this elevation. Initially it slowed us down but not so much now. We also noticed a slightly faster heart rate which is probably attributed to the blood being pumped to more vital areas of the body. In short if you visit or live at higher elevations be prepared for bodily function changes. When Carol visits family in Florida she notes that she sleeps less but more soundly and her energy level is significantly increased at sea level. When she returns to the mountains she goes through a process of altitude adjustment.

Gradual Increases In Altitude

Over the 20 years we have lived at this altitude our bodies have adjusted and readjusted allowing us to function normally. We have seen people abruptly move to the mountains and not be able to handle the physiological change and continually having to struggle with the lower oxygen amounts. Getting a headache driving over a mountain pass could be an early indicator of being more prone to altitude sickness. We suggest to family and friends who come to visit that they take their time and proceed in incremental stages in order to give their bodies time to adjust plus drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.

Anyone Is Prone To Altitude Sickness

For those who wish to live full time like we do at a higher elevation it would probably be a good idea to visit first to make sure your body can adapt to the thinner air. We had a family member visit once who ended up with altitude sickness and was sick and miserable until returning to a lower elevation. It is hard to determine who is prone to altitude sickness until they actually get sick with it. In some people it can be severe and even life threatening.

High Altitude Living Requires Adjustments

We have seen people retire and move to the mountains and have no problems. We didn’t have any significant problems but then again others have experienced lasting problems. We recognized almost immediately upon moving to this elevation that we had to slow our pace down and that has remained constant for the past 20 years. We noticed a change in our breathing initially wherein we took deeper and more breaths.  Moving to the mountains as a couple can be especially perplexing if one person ends up with altitude sickness and the other does not. Going for a hike or mountain bike ride with one person lacking the stamina to keep up can be a problem.

Realistic Self Evaluation

Before moving to the mountains it is important to make a realistic assessment of your physical condition. If you are out of shape, grossly overweight or fatigue easily at sea level it is likely that living at higher elevation won’t improve matters. We observed one person who had visions of long walks through mountain meadows when in fact they was in such poor health they couldn’t take a short walk at sea level. They had visions of fishing mountain streams for native trout without realizing that going along a mountain stream can be treacherous and difficult. Unrealistic expectations and not making a proper assessment of physical conditions may put a total damper on living at higher elevation. If it can’t be done at a lower elevation it will not be any easier at high elevation.

Mountain Living Is Exceptional If You Can Handle the Altitude

Mountain living at higher elevation is everything anyone could expect it to be with fresh air and beautiful vistas and it is outdoor living at its best. Unless you want to carry along an oxygen bottle to help you get the needed oxygen your body needs it is best to make a proper assessment of your physical condition before hand. A physical can’t determine if you will get altitude sickness or not but it will reveal if other body systems are all functioning well.    

Before purchasing land and a home/cabin in the mountains only to find out your body won’t adapt to the higher elevation can be costly. A week or two visit to the area of choice at the higher elevation should be sufficient to know it there is a potential physiological problem or not.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray who live with their four German Shepherd Dogs in a small cabin heated by wood stove go to:

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