Living at High Altitude: Pros and Cons

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Living at high altitude can afford gorgeous views. Photo: Public Domain
Living at high altitude can afford gorgeous views. Photo: Public Domain

There are plenty of pros and cons to living at high altitude. Most population centers at high altitude are really small towns. Denver, Colorado is a mile high (5280 feet), but most other places above a mile in altitude are small. There are a few middle-size cities, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Flagstaff, Arizona, but it’s generally hard for a large group of people to settle into mountainous areas, which means fewer jobs, and fewer people settling there. (Note: Denver is on the plains.)

When I first moved to Colorado back in 1994 from sea level Virginia, I got lightheaded climbing the stairs for a couple of weeks. My body quickly adapted, though, as I had youth on my side. But when you first visit or move to high altitude no matter what your age, go easy. Drink plenty of water, and don’t overdo it with physical activities. Once you’re acclimated to high altitude, you’ll notice some distinct pros and cons to living there.

Pros:

  • The thinner air means an increase in red blood cells, once you’re acclimated. So any trips to Disney World or to participate in that Boston Marathon will give you an advantage over your sea level-living competition.
  • Thinner air also usually means cleaner air. Bluer skies. Glorious days.
  • High altitudes often afford gorgeous views, depending on your location. In Colorado, living a mile high means you live on the plains and look up to the mountains. In my part of Arizona, living a mile high means you live in the mountains with views of other mountains.
  • There are fewer people. Other than Denver, you’re looking at living in a town of less than 100,000 people, and often less than 25,000. For those of us who prefer to live outside the hustle and bustle of a metropolis, that’s a real plus.

Cons:

  • If you go from very low altitude to very high altitude, you are at risk for altitude sickness. Take it easy and drink plenty of water. Do move around, but take it slow. Don’t sleep during the day if you feel tired. Apparently sleeping can make your symptoms worse. If you want to do high altitude training for a bicycle or running event, don’t go full speed right away. And realize your earned advantage will be short lived. You’ll be back to sea level blood cell count in a week or two.
  • Most of your food packages seem hyper-inflated. The lower air pressure at high altitude causes potato chip bags to be close to bursting. Ice cream lids dome outward. Everything with air in it expands.
  • The sun is very strong. Since the sun’s rays have less atmosphere to go through, you are much more likely to get a sunburn. Like, even after 10 or 15 minutes. Wear sunscreen and a sun hat when you’re outside, even on a cloudy day.
  • You become dehydrated more quickly, so drink plenty of fluids, especially when you’re outside or active. Even in winter.
  • You need to adjust your cooking and baking. Where I live (5550 feet), water boils at about 200 degrees F, a whole 12 degrees lower than at sea level. This means boiling pasta longer, adjusting temperatures when making fudge, etc. The differing air pressure also means you need to add less leavening and more flour to baked goods, like brownies. This isn’t as much trouble as it sounds, however.

In addition, other health effects seem to be a mixed bag. Some pros, some cons. YMMV. But I enjoy the clean air, stark blue skies, and mountain views of living over a mile high. What about you? If you live at high altitude, do you prefer it? Or do you miss the thicker air of sea level?

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