Opinion » Antidote

Elevation Rejuvenation


My question is: Does living at high altitudes make you look younger? This is complicated, so try to follow me. At a recent 90th birthday party for my grandmother, lots of comments were made about how young she looks. I also got complimented for the same thing. On the other hand, people said my cousin and my aunt were not aging quite as well. Both my grandmother and I live at relatively high altitudes (she lives in Alaska and I'm here in Boise) while my cousin and aunt live at sea level on the coast of Oregon. I don't think it can be genetics because we're all related to one another, but what do you think?

--Rebecca (once again)

My first thought upon reading your question was: Didn't Michael Jackson sleep inside an "altitude-changing" hyperbaric oxygen chamber so he wouldn't grow old? Then my mind wandered over images of him sleeping soundly in his futon torpedo, looking younger and younger and more like Dora the Explorer with every oxygenated breath. Of course, I then realized it would be nearly impossible for him to get any sleep inside that thing, what with young boys being so restless and prone to messing with all the little dials and whatnot.

Further reflection revealed that I also had it backwards: A hyperbaric chamber increases the atmospheric pressure to saturate tissues with oxygen, while an actual altitude increase reduces the air pressure and lessens the available oxygen. The chamber, which often resembles an iron lung, is best known for use in treating the "bends," or decompression sickness, following a deep-sea diver's too-rapid ascent to the surface. The devices are also widely used in medical therapy to improve tissue infections, diabetic foot ulcers, cases of gangrene, and burns--perhaps like those occurring when your hair catches on fire during filming of a Pepsi commercial.

At high elevations, the opposite effect (low air pressure and decreased oxygen) may lead to altitude sickness. This temporary condition is really a failure of the body to adapt quickly enough to the external changes. Making it worse, the abrupt change in altitude is often accompanied by physical exertion--hiking, skiing or climbing--activities that increase the body's oxygen requirements at the same time oxygen is less available in the air. The result, called hypoxia, can include symptoms like disordered reasoning, weakness and nausea. Older people are generally more susceptible to altitude sickness and have greatly worsened symptoms if they suffer from medical conditions that reduce lung function, like emphysema or chronic bronchitis. But hey, it could all be worth it if you still look like your prom picture, right?

Not so fast. Research on the elderly of Nepal, a tiny country containing eight of the 14 highest mountains in the world, showed that as the residents aged, progressively smaller amounts of oxygen entered their blood during sleep (not good). And according to Dr. Gustavo Gonzales, a Peruvian physiologist who studies the effect of altitude on the human body, "it is known that women living at high altitude are more susceptible to disease and tend to die earlier." To prove it, he completed one of a number of studies that, in 2002, found certain adrenal hormones important for overall health (DHEA and DHEAS) were produced in smaller amounts at high altitude and ultimately declined to levels about 40 percent of that of women living at sea level.

Fortunately for both you and your grandmother, his studies were done in the Andes Mountains of Peru at elevations of more than 13,000 feet, much higher than most American cities. So unless your grandmother lives atop Mt. McKinley, she's got little to worry about in that department--though at 90, she should probably cut back on her glacier climbing. A more straightforward aging concern with thinner air at higher elevations, however, is the relative strength of the sun. Without a heavy atmosphere to help filter the sun's damaging ultraviolet rays, over-exposure to the skin happens much faster and with more intensity than at lower heights. And since the sun may be the single largest cause of premature aging, living at higher altitudes is more likely to make you look older, not younger.

Though it's nice to appear more youthful than your relatives, you probably just take better care of your skin. Unlike you, Grandma and Michael Jackson, the rest of us have to actually worry about premature aging. As for The King of Pop, the moment he gets a wrinkle, apparently a surgeon simply swaps that body part with a convenient replacement. He's sort of like Neverland's version of a Mr. Potato Head--but one you keep away from children.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send one rhinestone glove and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).