Harvard Heart Letter

Taking heart disease to new heights

With some planning, you can get a Rocky Mountain high even if your heart isn't in tip-top shape.

Once upon a time, the only way to get to the top of a mountain was to hike up. The arduous journey kept all but the healthiest adventurers from enjoying the world's loftiest views. Today, autos, buses, cable cars, cog railways, and helicopters can whisk you from the lowlands to the highlands without your straining a muscle. Such unprecedented access means that more people with heart disease are taking high-altitude trips.

The higher you go, the less oxygen you get with each breath. The body responds to this in several ways. Breathing becomes faster and deeper. The heart beats faster and pumps harder. The sympathetic nervous system pumps more stress hormones into the bloodstream. Over weeks and months, bone marrow makes more oxygen-carrying red blood cells, which gradually takes the strain off the heart and lungs.

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