Does climbing to extremely high altitudes lead to brain damage?

800px-Mount_everest

Mount Everest. Photo by Rupert Taylor-Price from Flickr.

I admire mountain climbers, especially those who look up at the highest peaks in the world and say: “I am going there”. I admire crazy people who can push themselves to the limits of human potential, making history, and inspiring others to push themselves to their limits.

That said, doing extraordinary things very often comes with extraordinary risks. Besides the risk of falling, the higher up you go, the thinner the atmosphere and the less oxygen there is. Just about everyone who climbs to the top of Mount Everest and other very high peaks suffers from hypoxia or low oxygen conditions, unless they bring an oxygen tank with them. Lack of oxygen can lead to dizziness, drowsiness, lightheadedness, and headache among other things that can severely compromise even an experienced climbers abilities.

But does this lead to permanent brain damage? When it comes to climbers of Mount Everest, according to Clinica Quirón de Zaragoza, Spain in Evidence of brain damage after high-altitude climbing by means of magnetic resonance imaging:

RESULTS:

Only 1 in 13 of the Everest climbers had a normal MRI; the amateur showed frontal subcortical lesions, and the remainder had cortical atrophy and enlargement of Virchow-Robin spaces but no lesions. Among the remaining amateurs, 13 showed symptoms of high-altitude illness, 5 had subcortical irreversible lesions, and 10 had innumerable widened Virchow-Robin spaces. Conversely, we did not see any lesion in the control group. We found no significant differences in the metabolite ratios between climbers and controls.

CONCLUSIONS:

We conclude that there is enough evidence of brain damage after high altitude climbing; the amateur climbers seem to be at higher risk of suffering brain damage than professional climbers.

I’ve never seriously entertained the idea of climbing Everest(29,029 ft or 8,848 m, or), but if I ever do I will keep this in mind, and will definitely bring an oxygen tank if I decide to do it(no I won’t joggle to the top). It looks like the brain damage may be permanent.

Everest’s 29,029 ft may seem like an incredible, very intimidating height to most of us, but this is because of our every day experiences of heights and distances. From another perspective, 29,029 ft is only about 0.14% of the distance from seal level to the center of the Earth.

Maybe I could joggle to the top after all?

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One response to “Does climbing to extremely high altitudes lead to brain damage?

  1. Interesting! Celeste 🙂

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