Going High with Heart Disease: The Effect of High Altitude Exposure in Older Individuals and Patients with Coronary Artery Disease

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27 Scopus citations


Ischemic heart disease is the largest cause of death in older men and women in the western world (Lozano et al., 2012; Roth et al., 2015). Atherosclerosis progresses with age, and thus age is the dominant risk factor for coronary heart disease in any algorithm used to assess risk for cardiovascular events. Subclinical atherosclerosis also increases with age, providing the substrate for precipitation of acute coronary syndromes. Thus the risk of high altitude exposure in older individuals is linked closely with both subclinical and manifest coronary heart disease (CHD). There are several considerations associated with taking patients with CHD to high altitude: a) The reduced oxygen availability may cause or exacerbate symptoms; b) The hypoxia and other associated environmental conditions (exercise, dehydration, change in diet, thermal stress, emotional stress from personal danger or conflict) may precipitate acute coronary events; c) If an event occurs and the patient is far from advanced medical care, then the outcome of an acute coronary event may be poor; and d) Sudden death may occur. Physicians caring for older patients who want to sojourn to high altitude should keep in mind the following four key points: 1). Altitude may exacerbate ischemic heart disease because of both reduced O<inf>2</inf> delivery and paradoxical vasoconstriction; 2). Adverse events, including acute coronary syndromes and sudden cardiac death, are most common in older unfit men, within the first few days of altitude exposure; 3). Ensuring optimal fitness, allowing for sufficient acclimatization (at least 5 days), and optimizing medical therapy (especially statins and aspirin) are prudent recommendations that may reduce the risk of adverse events; 4). A graded exercise test at sea level is probably sufficient for most clinical decision making and will allow for assessment of exercise capacity, and provocable ischemia. Given these considerations, most older individuals with CHD should be able to tolerate exposure to high altitude safely, and with minimal increased risk.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)89-96
Number of pages8
JournalHigh Altitude Medicine and Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2015


  • Aging
  • Altitude
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Hypoxia
  • Sudden cardiac death

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)
  • Physiology
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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