Here’s why living in the mountains could be best thing for your health

SAN FRANCISCO — If you want the secret to a healthier life, it might be a move to the mountains. A new study finds the two million people who live at an elevation of more than 4,500 meters — about the height of Mount Rainier, Mount Whitney, and many Colorado and Alaska peaks — appear to have lower rates of metabolic diseases such as diabetes and coronary heart disease.

The new animal study suggests it’s not just the daily treks up the mountains that leave them in tip-top shape. Researchers in California say the reason behind their good health stems from the low oxygen levels from living at higher elevations. Understanding how low oxygen levels affect health could lead to some new strategies for treating metabolic diseases.

“When an organism is exposed to chronically low levels of oxygen, we found that different organs reshuffle their fuel sources and their energy-producing pathways in various ways,” says study senior author Isha Jain, PhD, a Gladstone assistant investigator, in a statement. “We hope these findings will help us identify metabolic switches that might be beneficial for metabolism even outside of low-oxygen environments.”

At sea level, oxygen makes up 21 percent of the air. For those living above 4,500 meters (14,764 feet), however, oxygen makes up only 11 percent of the air. Living in these areas for long periods of time forces the human body to adapt to the shortage of oxygen — otherwise known as hypoxia.

The mountain town of Wengen, Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland
The mountain town of Wengen, Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. (Photo by Yura Lytkin on Unsplash)

Could less oxygen actually be good for you?

Hypoxia is an area of interest for biologists who have observed it among isolated cells or within cancerous tumors. In the current study, Jain and her colleagues looked at how long-term hypoxia impacts organs all over the body.

“We wanted to profile the metabolic changes that take place as an organism adapts to hypoxia,” says Ayush Midha, a graduate student in Jain’s lab and lead author of the study. “We thought this might provide some insight into how that adaptation protects against metabolic disease.”

The team placed adult mice in pressure chambers that contained 21, 11, or 8-percent oxygen — all levels where both mice and humans can survive. The researchers observed the rodent’s behavior over a three-week period along with keeping track of their temperature, carbon dioxide level, and blood sugar levels. PET scans helped the team look at how different organs were consuming nutrients.

It took a couple of days for the mice to adjust to the pressure chamber. Mice under conditions of hypoxia (11% and 8% oxygen levels) moved around less and sometimes spent hours staying completely still. However, by the end of the third week, their movement patterns returned to normal. Carbon dioxide levels in the blood decreased when mice breathe faster to get more oxygen, but this returned to normal levels after the three-week period.

There was one bodily change that did not revert back to normal levels. The mice’s metabolism appeared permanently altered from the hypoxic chambers. Animals experiencing hypoxia had lower blood sugar levels and weight that never returned to pre-hypoxic levels. The researchers suggest these long-term changes resemble what doctors see in people living in higher elevations.

This could be big news for diabetics

The PET scans of each organ showed some permanent changes as well. Normally, the body needs tons of oxygen to metabolize fatty acids (the building blocks of fats) and amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Less oxygen is necessary to metabolize sugar. Mice under hypoxic conditions showed an increase in glucose metabolism, an observation the researchers expected. The unexpected finding was that brown fat and skeletal muscles — two organs known for their high levels of glucose metabolism — reduced the amount of sugar they normally use.

“Prior to this study, the assumption in the field was that in hypoxic conditions, your whole body’s metabolism becomes more efficient in using oxygen, which means it burns more glucose and fewer fatty acids and amino acids,” says Jain. “We showed that while some organs are indeed consuming more glucose, others become glucose savers instead.”

Jain says the observation makes sense. Individual cells in a petri dish don’t need to compromise their glucose use. An entire animal, on the other hand, need to find ways to ration their glucose and make it last for all bodily systems.

The drop in glucose levels and body weight seen in hypoxic mice have a link to a lower risk of diseases in humans, including heart disease. Jain and her team hope to take these results and apply them on a cellular level. Their next work involves using hypoxic conditions to study individual cell types and levels of signaling molecules. The finding is a step towards creating new drugs that mimic the metabolic benefits hypoxia or high-altitude trips provide to human health.

“We already see athletes going to train at altitude to improve their athletic performance; maybe in the future, we’ll start recommending that people spend time at high altitude for other health reasons,” concludes Midha.

The study is published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

YouTube video

Follow on Google News

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

The contents of this website do not constitute advice and are provided for informational purposes only. See our full disclaimer


  1. Uh….Sorry, but you’re wrong.

    There’s as much oxygen at 14,000 feet above mean sea level as there is at sea level.

    The difference is pressure. Because the air at 14,000 feet is less dense than air at sea level, the oxygen molecules are not as dense as at sea level. Each breath at altitude contains fewer oxygen molecules because they’re further apart, not fewer of them.

    That’s the way it is.

  2. “At sea level, oxygen makes up 21 percent of the air. For those living above 4,500 meters (14,764 feet), however, oxygen makes up only 11 percent of the air.”

    This is incorrect. Oxygen is consistently 21% of the air that we breathe regardless of elevation above sea level, assuming you’re not actually moving into space. However, the total density of the air decreases with increasing elevation which drives down the absolute amount of oxygen that you’re able to consume with each breath of air. In other words, the number of oxygen molecules in a given volume of air will always be 21% of the total number of molecules in that volume, but the total number of molecules in a given volume of air decreases with increasing altitude.

  3. Wengen Switzerland, the photo in the article, is only 4180 feet above sea level. Not nearly the 14,000 feet suggested in the articles text.

  4. Does anyone have common sense anymore or proofread these garbage articles? Who is living at nearly 15,000 ft elevation? I doubt if there is a single permanent residential home at that elevation in the US. The highest ski resort in the country is Breckenridge at around 13,000 ft. At that elevation it’s a tree-less rock outcropping with often brutal winds. In fact it looks like there is only one ski resort in the entire WORLD that is above 4,500 meters elevation.

    1. Well said. What a joke of an article. If there really are 2 million people in the world living above 4500 meters, they would be subject to hugely significant confounders that would make it meaningless to conclude that living at altitude by itself is the reason for their perceived greater healthfulness (assuming that the observation of healthfulness is correct, which I would question too).

  5. I’m just happy to be living high up in the Cherokee National Forest. God’s Country.

  6. Living in the mountains, I can agree with the first sentence of the article. But the second sentence reveals a serious flaw in the writing. There is not a single mountain top in the lower 48 that reaches 4500 meters, and it is absurd to suggest that two million people live above that elevation. Surely, NO ONE in North America lives above 4500 meters for more than a few days.

    A simple link to the study itself would be more valuable than a careless rewrite.

  7. The composition of the air is constant as altitude varies. The absolute pressure decreases with increasing altitude, but the partial pressures of the components of the atmosphere remain constant. What this article points out that within Jocelyn Solis-Moreira’s organization the author as well as the editors are not equipped to write an article with scientific conclusions.

  8. The only surprise is the fact that some people may be surprised by this. Come on people! Get out. Visit a national park. Find out what fresh air is!

  9. That Switzerland picture shows trees, at 4,500 meters (14,764 feet) you are above tree-line.

  10. Harvard did a study of the top ten counties in the US for longevity. All where in Colorado in the mountains. Separately, after a couple of weeks your blood changes to take in more oxygen if you live at higher altitudes. Maybe that has something to do with it. It is also pretty rare to see an overweight person up here. You can argue about oxygen concentration all you want, but you live longer here, so deal with it!!!

  11. Hypoxia is considered to be fairly ubiquitous above 3000m. Aren’t pilots whose high altitude flights lose (yeah, lose does have only one “o”) air pressure required to descend to 10,000ft so as the people don’t get silly/pass out? I’d be more interested in a study that compared those living near to sea level with those of us living in the 4,000 to 6000ft. range.

  12. Totally agree but find mountains other than the ones in Utah if you’re coming from California… We don’t need your liberal bullshit

Comments are closed.