“Does High Altitude Impact Your Heart?” asks Mario
By Adam Pick on November 21, 2019
I just received a great question from Mario about heart function, potential symptoms and high altitudes. In his email, Mario asked me, “Hi Adam – I have a question about my heart. I just got back from Lake Tahoe, California. I was in the casino and noticed that I was getting short of breath. Is altitude something I should worry about? Does altitude impact heart valve function? Thanks! Mario”.
Mario asks a fantastic question. In fact, I have received similar questions from other patients over the years. Unfortunately, I never had a great answer.
For these reasons, I reached out to Dr. Junaid Khan. As you may know, Dr. Khan is a heart valve specialist based in Oakland, California. You should also know that Dr. Khan is long-time supporter of HeartValveSurgery.com that has successfully treated many patients from our community at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. You can see over 35 patient testimonials for Dr. Khan here.
Dr. Junaid Khan
Dr. Khan Says…
After sending Dr. Khan an email with Mario’s question about the potential impact of altitude on heart function, I was excited to get a response.
First, Dr. Khan addressed an important question that you might be wondering, “What does it mean to be at altitude?”
Mario, Great question. This is a question that I am frequently asked by my patients. So you know, “high altitude” means anything above 8,200 feet according to the American Heart Association. Given the elevations of some parts of Lake Tahoe that means that you would certainly qualify for being at a high elevation.
Second, Dr. Khan addressed if heart valve function is negatively impacted by high altitudes.
Specific to heart valve function, being at a high altitude does not specifically impact the opening-and-closing of your aortic, mitral, tricuspid and pulmonary valves. However, high altitude does affect several cardiac parameters which can then indirectly affect valvular function.
Third, Dr. Khan addressed the key reason why patients with cardiac disease may become symptomatic at higher altitudes:
Though individual responses vary… For most patients, the lower concentration of oxygen in the air can cause a decrease in oxygen saturation within the blood from 100% down to 80%. That’s a 20% decrease which results in a significant decrease of oxygen delivered to the tissue. The body responds to this oxygen deficiency by increasing the heart rate by 10% to 30%. As the heart rate increases, the pre-existing valvular conditions accentuate.
Ultimately, the decrease of oxygen at high altitude can lead to symptoms including shortness of breath. In addition, there are two other major factors at altitude that patients should know about which are (i) an increase in pulmonary vascular constriction and (ii) an increase in sympathetic nervous outflow that can lead to an increase in systolic blood pressure. As a result, patients can feel dizzy, fatigue, head aches, chest pain, vision problems and/or or experience heart palpitations. For these reasons, I always recommend that patients – with underlying cardiac conditions – review their medications with their doctor before going to altitude as an adjustment may be warranted.
I hope that helped Mario (and perhaps you) learn more about the heart, valvular function and symptoms at high altitudes. Many thanks to Mario for his question and a special thanks goes out to Dr. Khan for sharing his clinical experience and his research with our community!!!
- Watch Dr. Khan Address the Dangers of Vaping (Fox News)
- See Dr. Khan’s Interactive Surgeon Profile
- Discover the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center Heart Valve Microsite
Keep on tickin!