Research shows high altitude increases depression and suicide, especially for women

Posted at 6:34 PM, Apr 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-01 21:20:59-04

SALT LAKE CITY - Researchers at the University of Utah believe people who live at higher altitudes can become more depressed than people who live closer to sea level. The effect, they say, is especially noticeable in women.

Dr. Shami Kanekar said she understands one of the main reasons people move to Utah is for the beautiful mountains. Skiing is supposed to make people happy, but that doesn’t always end up being the case for people with depression.

“They go up to the mountains for vacation but feel extremely depressed, and their medication’s not working,” she said. “They’re more depressed!”

Kanekar has studied the negative effects of altitude for years. Her research has shown that men and women don’t feel the effects of typical antidepressants at higher elevations.

Experiments also seem to indicate that women go through a chemical change in their brain when exposed to anything at or above “moderate” elevation, even for a relatively short period of time, Kanekar said.

“You see higher depression, higher anxiety in females, while males don’t seem to have that change,” Kanekar said.

Depression can lead to suicide, and suicide rates in Utah are significantly higher than the national average.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Utah has the fifth-highest suicide rate for women.

Utah also has the third-highest average elevation in country. Kanekar said she doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that other high-elevation states are also suffering.

“I don’t think that’s a surprise at all, I think that’s expected,” she said. “People need help. That’s what goes through my mind.”

Kanekar recommended, if someone is worried about the effects of elevation on their body, one of the best solutions could be to take a vacation. She goes to California to visit family.

“I just have so much energy and I’m running around,” she said, “but then again, I’m on vacation.”

The University of Utah’s research has been peer reviewed and included animal testing on rats.

“You can’t tell whether a rat is happy, sad, or pissed off,” Kanekar said, “but there are symptoms of depression that you can measure.”

Kanekar said it could be years before scientists find a comprehensive solution to the problem, but they’re already working on ways to treat people with alternative anti-depressants that would have more of an impact at higher elevations.