Growing up in a high altitude area may lower chronic disease risk, study finds

The Mosuo, a Tibetan-descended population living in the mountains of Southwest China, were found to be at lower risk for hypertension and diabetes-associated anemia than low-altitude Han populations.

(CNN)Living near the Tibetan Plateau, often referred to as "The Roof of the World," may have more benefits than scenic pleasure.

A new study has found that humans native to high-altitude areas may have a lower risk for chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes-associated anemia -- and the reason why may have to do with the way their bodies have adapted to living with less oxygen.
The research, which published Thursday in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, found that the Mosuo people who live near the Tibetan Plateau in Central and East Asia have very different chronic disease risk, possibly due to genetic adaptations to prevent hypoxia, a condition where the body's tissues are deprived of a sufficient supply of oxygen from the air.
    Researchers thought these genetic adaptations might also reduce the Mosuos' risk for other chronic conditions, such as hypertension and diabetes-associated anemia.
      After studying the Mosuo, a Tibetan-descended population living in the Hengduan Mountains of Southwest China at an elevation of about 8,530 feet, the researchers learned they were right. Despite lifestyle factors that would ordinarily increase a person's risk for such conditions, the Mosuo had a lower risk for hypertension and diabetes-associated anemia than low-altitude Han populations.
      "The key message is 'look how cool this is,' when high-altitude adaptations have effects beyond [being just] high-altitude adaptations, which we weren't expecting," said co-author Katherine Wander, assistant professor of anthropology at Binghamton University in New York state.
      "Human biological variation matters for our chronic disease risk. And studying that intersection of genetic adaptations and chronic disease risk is really pretty important for people generally, not just for the Mosuo."

        A history of built-in protection

        People have been living on the Tibetan Plateau at altitudes of up to approximately 17,700 feet for thousands of years, the report said, and their characteristics seem to be what mitigate hypoxic stress.
        Whereas travelers to high altitudes experience about a 10% to 20% drop in oxygen uptake -- which is the rate at which oxygen can be used by the body during maximal work -- Tibetans show no deficit. That's because their bodies naturally dilate their blood vessels in a process called vasodilation to compensate for the reduced oxygen content. This raises their blood supply and lowers their blood pressure to enhance oxygen delivery in their arteries.
        These characteristics are likely to lower hypertension, the study said, as hypertension may be caused by underproduction of vasodilators that help blood flow, an