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Study examines suicide at high altitude

Sarah Mausolf
smausolf@vaildaily.com
Vail, CO Colorado
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EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Is the altitude partly to blame for the higher suicide rates in the intermountain West?

New research suggests it could play a role.

A study published in the Sept. 15 issue of the “American Journal of Psychiatry” tested out the leading theories on why the suicide rate is generally higher in the Western states.



One of those theories claims the suicide rates could be higher because more people in the region own guns. Another theory points to the region’s low population density, which could leave people feeling isolated and distance them from mental health resources.

But the new research looks at a third factor: the correlation between altitude and suicide rates.



“We looked at gun ownership and population density and showed that if you consider all three of those factors together, altitude is actually the strongest predictor of increase in suicide rate,” said study co-author Dr. Perry F. Renshaw, a psychiatry professor at the Utah School of Medicine and an investigator with the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative.

One possible explanation could be the metabolic stress resulting from inadequate oxygen to the body, the study said.

Some people – particularly those with mood disorders such as depression – could have a harder time adjusting to the thin mountain air, Renshaw said.



But researchers say more studies are necessary to clarify the effects of altitude on the course of mental illness.

Perhaps most importantly, the study raises questions about why suicide rates are higher at high altitudes.

“The $64,000 question is really why does this happen?” Renshaw said. “I think it’s in getting the answer to that that we’re going to see really practical applications for the research.”

The study has been circulating among members of an Eagle County group that brainstorms ways to prevent suicides. Avon psychologist Henry Goetze said he found the study interesting. He cautions that a correlation between altitude and higher suicide rates doesn’t necessarily mean altitude causes suicide.

“I think the researchers, rightfully, say you have to be careful at pointing to a single factor like altitude when there are so many other correlated factors,” he said.

Altitude’s link to suicide is a relatively new area of study.

“This is really the first detailed paper that’s been published on it,” Renshaw said.

The researchers looked at 20 years worth of data on suicide rates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as data on gun ownership and population density. They derived the elevation numbers from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Their findings backed up the idea that suicide rates are higher among gun owners and rural residents.

But even after accounting for those factors, the team concluded that altitude appeared to be a significant risk factor for suicide.

However, they say the research should be interpreted cautiously, as suicide rates vary by age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic factors, psychiatric illness and family history.

Still, the data is startling. At Colorado’s average altitude of 2,000 meters (about 6,600 feet), the suicide rate is about 70 percent higher than it is at sea level, Renshaw said.

The study’s lead researcher, Namkug Kim, also looked at suicide rates in South Korea and found a similar correlation with altitude.

Staff Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2928 or smausolf@vaildaily.com.


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