Effects of High Altitude on Diabetes and Obesity

Cedars-Sinai scientists have found an inverse association between altitude and diabetes and between altitude and obesity. Men living at high altitudes (between 1,500 and 3,500 meters) have been shown to have lower prevalence of diabetes and obesity than those at lower altitudes (below 500 meters). Researchers are interested in pursuing the mechanisms behind this association between geographic elevation and diabetes. Studies are being conducted to elucidate the effects of high altitude on insulin secretion and insulin sensitivity.

Adults in the United States living in high altitudes have better glucose homeostasis, which is associated with lower odds of having diabetes, than those living at altitudes below 500 meters. To determine whether this association is related to altitude, complex analysis using mixed-model logistic regression to control for multiple risk factors and potential confounders was performed. The association persisted after adjusting for several covariates, suggesting that altitude does have an effect on diabetes prevalence.

Orison Woolcott, MD, is a project scientist focused on investigating the effect of high altitude on glucose homeostasis at the Cedars-Sinai Diabetes and Obesity Research Institute (DORI). Woolcott is looking at the prevalence of obesity and diabetes in high-altitude populations to determine which attributes related to altitude lower the prevalence of both conditions.

Atmospheric changes that occur as altitude increases include lower oxygen tension, lower humidity, higher radiation, lower temperature and lower barometric pressure. Isolating the effects of these environmental factors related to high altitude may reveal novel therapeutic methods for treating diabetes and obesity. Current directions in Woolcott’s research include the use of rodent models to investigate the isolated effects of these factors.

While the prevalence of diabetes and obesity have been increasing, understanding the apparent protective effect of living in a high altitude may provide insights for combating these diseases.

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