Have Altitude Sickness? Blame Your DNA, Not Your Fitness

Heading to the Himalayas? Better ask your DNA for permission.

Most of us have been there — up a mountain, going high, going fast, only to be debilitated (or inconvenienced) by the misery of altitude-induced headaches, sleeplessness, and perhaps nausea. And what many of us have discovered by experience is now being confirmed by science: How well you do at altitude has little to do with your level of fitness and everything to do with your genes. Six specific genes, in fact, according to an ongoing study by the University of Colorado Altitude Research Center.

The study isn’t quite done yet (and researchers won’t comment on the ongoing work), but the research could lead to a test that can accurately predict who will get sick and who won’t. Once the scientists hone in the genetic difference between those slightly negatively impacted and those severely impacted, a test could be developed within a year.

What might be helpful to an expedition team is a big deal to the military, which is backing the study in hopes of finding a way around the current trial-and-error method, sending troops into high mountain regions of, say, Afghanistan, only to find that they fall acutely ill. Or giving all soldiers Diamox, which is an expensive solution to a problem that might afflict some troops but not others.

The lab work is far from complete, which is why Dr. Robert Roach, who heads the ARC lab, says it’s too soon to report with certainty on what they’ve learned, though he suggests there might be a report in fall. Until then, there are a few logical questions we’d ask:

Will this result in a specific test anyone could get before going on a climb of a Rainier or just a ski trip to Vail? What happens when we go even higher? The simulated and actual tests were at an equivalent of 14,000-16,000 feet. But if you go to 20,000 feet would you find marker genes (and more symptoms) for those who are asymptomatic lower? We all know that climbing slowly can help anyone acclimate to altitude more easily, but will knowing about genetic markers change the protocols for anyone visiting the mountains, or only for those who are most prone to falling ill? And how does the DNA of Sherpas compared to low-altitude dwellers?

One thing we do know; as with so much genetic research, this study isn’t likely to lead to a simple “cure” for hypoxia. The lower barometric pressure at altitude lets you access less oxygen, and your heart, lungs, and muscles all have to work harder to function. That’s basic physiology, and even acclimatization cannot make living at 8,000 meters safe for human beings.

Photo by Vadim Petrakov/Shutterstock

{ 2 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Craig Rowe

    This could be huge for the wilderness medicine industry and outfitters alike. “Here, pee on this and tell us the results.”

    It would also help quickly diagnose AMS instead of having to drill down into other potential causes of an illness. Not that you would want to immediately rule out other potential illnesses …

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>