Living at higher altitudes could lower your stroke risk

Stroke is the third biggest killer of Australians, behind heart disease and dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease), and a recent study suggests terrain may be behind these deaths.

According to the research, conducted in Ecuador, living at higher altitudes could lower your chance of having a deadly stroke.

Unfortunately for Australians, the protective altitude window, according to the researchers, is between 2000 and 3500 metres above sea level.

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According to Geoscience Australia, there is only 800 square kilometres of land in Australia that is 2000 metres or more above sea level (or just 0.01 per cent of the country), which is great news if you live on or near Mt Kosciuszko (2228 metres above sea level), but not much use for the rest of Australia.

The Ecuadorean study examined the incidence of stroke-related hospitalisation and death in people living at four different elevations and included data gathered over 17 years on more than 100,000 stroke patients.

The scientists explained that higher altitude means less oxygen availability, so people who have lived on higher ground have adapted to these conditions.

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Anecdotal evidence suggests that short-term exposure to low oxygen can contribute to increased blood clotting and stroke risk, but the risk among people who permanently live at high altitude is not clear.

The results of the study showed that people who lived at higher altitudes (above 2500 metres) tended to experience stroke at a later age compared with those at lower altitudes.

People who lived at higher altitudes were also less likely to be admitted to hospital or die because of stroke. However, this protective effect was greater between 2000 and 3500 metres and tailed off a little above 3500 metres.

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The researchers have speculated that people who live at higher altitude may have adapted to the low oxygen conditions and more readily grow new blood vessels to help overcome stroke-related damage.

People living at high altitude may also have developed a vascular network in their brains that helps them to make the most of the oxygen they intake, which could also protect them from the worst effects of stroke.

The most recent Australian research on stroke as a result of location was produced in a Deloitte report titled No Postcode Untouched – Stroke in Australia, which was released in November last year, and showed regional areas were over-represented in statistics.

That report, which investigated the incidence of stroke by federal electoral divisions, found that 43 per cent of Australians living with stroke were in areas classed as regional, despite these areas making up only 38 per cent of the Australian population.

That report found that the discrepancy could be explained by the fact that regional Australia is older on average than metropolitan areas, while also confirming a well-researched finding that shows the further people live from major Australian cities, the poorer their health and lower their life expectancy.

The Australian report also found that there is limited access to best-practice stroke treatment and care in regional Australia and that a lack of hospitals with specialist staff and stroke units could also have a bearing on the poorer results in regional areas.

Have you ever lived in a high-altitude area overseas? Did it take you long to adjust to the conditions? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by Ben



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