March 14, 2005 — There’s something about living on a mountain that does a heart good.
That’s not just hype, a new study shows. It traces the trend to a village tucked high in the mountains outside Athens, Greece. For more than a decade, residents there beat the odds against heart disease.
The mountain dwellers had a “protective effect” not seen in low-lying towns, say Greek researchers.
Overall, the mountain men and women were worse off, in terms of heart health risk factors, than lowlanders. But altitude may have worked in their favor, says the study.
Researchers Head for the Hills
What difference does sea level make to your heart? To find out, Greek researchers kept an eye on three villages near Athens for 14 years.
Two of the towns — Zevgolatio and Aidonia — are located on the plains. The third, Arahova, is poised more than half a mile (950 meters) above sea level.
Geography aside, the towns had four things in common.
First, they’re all small. The study’s 1,200 participants account for 32% of the adults in all three villages.
Second, the towns’ lifestyles are similar. In all three villages, men mainly farmed and bred animals, while women mostly focused on household activities.
Third, all three towns are in Greece, which has some of the developed world’s lowest death rates from heart disease (and all causes). Finally, the villages were about 125 miles away from Athens. Heart disease tends to be a greater problem in big cities.
Mountain Dwellers Defied Heart Risks
The mountain men and women didn’t get off to a good start. When researchers first met them in 1981, the mountain town tilted towards heart trouble. The men were heavier drinkers had cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and blood fats called triglycerides that were higher than men in the lowland villages. That does not bode well for the heart.
The mountain women were older, more educated, and lighter drinkers than women in the other towns. They had higher blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides compared with the other women.
By 1996, a total of 150 men and 140 women had died. Heart disease was responsible for 23% of all deaths among men (34 deaths) and 24% of women’s deaths (33 deaths).
Measuring the Altitude Advantage
More mountain dwellers were still alive. Mountain men did especially well. Their secret could be a vigorous life amidst rugged terrain and thin mountain air. That mixture might have strengthened them for survival, the study indicates.
Sixty mountain men (27%) had died of any cause and 11 men (5%) had died of heart disease. In contrast, 90 lowland men (32%) had died of any cause, with 23 (8%) dying of heart disease.
Mountain women also fared better than women on the plains, but their advantage was smaller. That might be because the men’s traditional jobs were more physically demanding, the researchers write.
A total of 73 mountain women (21%) had died of any cause, with 16 (5%) dying of heart disease. Compare that with 67 deaths from any cause (22%) and 17 heart disease deaths (6%) for lowland women.
Men’s heart disease risk factors were predictable, including older age, tobacco smoking, and higher blood sugar.
But there was a twist for women. Education — which usually lowers heart disease risk — actually increased women’s risk of heart disease death.
In Greece, “women of lower education may be physically more active and adhere more closely to the traditional and presumably healthy diet pattern,” write the researchers, who included Nikos Baibas of the University of Athens’ medical school.
The study appears in the April issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.