There’s a strong link between altitude and suicide

You may have heard of the benefits of living at higher altitudes. Available evidence suggests that inhabitants enjoy reduced mortality from cardiovascular disease, stroke and certain types of cancer, as the body is forced to adapt to a life with less oxygen.

But living at higher elevations can be a double-edged sword. As strong as the evidence for the physical benefits of altitude is, there is equally impressive data showing that living at higher altitudes has mental costs, particularly increased risk of suicide. in a systematic review published in May, the researchers pored over all available published studies on the topic. Of the 19 studies conducted, 17 found a link between height and suicide.

In one, Hoehun Ha, an assistant professor of geography at Auburn University in Montgomery, and colleagues compared US suicide rates at the county level with the average altitude for each county. Since suicide is greatly affected by a multitude of variables, they also controlled for socioeconomic and demographic factors, such as the unemployment rate, substance abuse rates, ethnicity, and the ratio of population to primary care physicians.

“We found that for every 100-meter increase in altitude, suicide rates increase by 0.4 per 100,000,” he wrote.

Credit: USGS

Other to study published this month examined the association between altitude and suicide rates in US veterans. Critically, the researchers behind it controlled for population density, among a variety of other potential confounders. Higher altitude areas are often less populated, so perhaps loneliness is what leads to higher suicide rates, not elevation. But even when taking population density into account, they found a strong correlation between altitude and suicide.

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“We also looked at the 50 counties with the highest suicide rates and the 50 counties with the lowest suicide rates for the US veteran population and found that there was a 3-fold difference in mean altitude between these two county groups,” they added. .

Since the link between altitude and suicide has been so thoroughly investigated, the researchers’ next task is to explain it. They have focused on one main hypothesis: hypoxia. Oxygen concentrations are lower at higher altitudes, which means that the blood may not be able to deliver enough of an essential element for life to the body’s tissues, particularly the brain. While organs like the heart and lungs seem to adapt to this shortage over time, the brain may not be so willing.

Animal experiments have shown that chronic hypoxic conditions decrease serotonin production in the brain. For a long time, reduced serotonin levels were thought to be related to depression, although that finding has now become would be doubt. Still, it’s reasonable to assume that reduced oxygen levels interfere with brain activity, possibly in a nefarious way.

Despite the link between altitude and suicide, in general, living at higher altitudes reduces mortality from all causes. The reduction in cardiovascular disease and cancer outweighs the high suicide rates. That’s good news for anyone considering a move to Mountain West.

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