Want to Prevent Lung Cancer? Get Higher

Higher altitudes could decrease chances of getting lung cancer

Avoiding cigarettes is one way to prevent lung cancer-but could getting higher also work?

Those who live in cities with higher altitudes might not only enjoy beautiful views, but also healthier lungs- and that could lead to a lower chance of getting lung cancer, a new study says.

In this study, doctoral students from the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) studied the possibility that higher altitudes could not only prevent lung cancer, but that the amount of oxygen in the air could affect the likelihood of getting the disease.

In this study, published in the journal PeerJ, researchers observed that for every increase in height of 1,000 meters, the rate of lung cancer decreased by about 13 percent from the average rate of occurrence. There are, on average, almost 57 cases of lung cancer per 100,000 people. That number decreased by about seven in the higher elevations, according to the study.

According to the study authors, if everyone in the United States moved to San Juan County, Colorado, which is elevated at 3,473 meters above sea level, almost 66,000 "fewer new lung cancer cases would arise per year."

The authors, Kamen P. Simeonov, a doctoral trainee at the UPenn Perelman School of Medicine and Daniel S. Himmelstein, a doctoral student at the UCSF Biological & Medical Informatics department, believe that a decrease in oxidation could be the reason behind lower lung cancer rates. Oxidation occurs when oxygen inhaled by the body forms chemical reactions in the body. These reactions create substances called free radicals that damage cells.

While the body has its own mechanisms to fight free radicals, being exposed to pollution and stress can overload the body with excessive oxidative stress, according to University of California Berkeley School of Public Health. This oxidative stress could be linked to cancer and heart disease, among other conditions.

Since there is less oxygen in higher elevations, the authors researched whether the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere, depending on the elevation of a location, is related to rates of cancer.

Simeonov and Himmelstein researched data from 260 counties in the US and accounted for age, diet, ethnic differences, wealth and other factors. After combing the data, the authors found a significant correlation between higher elevations and a decrease in lung cancer.

"The causal factor behind the association appears to play a notable role in lung carcinogenesis, worthy of consideration by researchers, health providers, and the general public," the study authors said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90 percent of lung cancer cases are a result of smoking cigarettes. Simeonov and Himmelstein acknowledge that oxygen is not a considerate factor contributing to lung cancer, however, since oxidative stress is "universal in exposure," their study could add to the conversation.

"Follow-up biological and experimental analyses will be critical to understanding the causal factor and potential mechanisms underlying the observed elevation association," they said.

This study was published January 13 in PeerJ.

No funding sources or conflicts were declared.