What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “high altitude living”? Most people tend to picture sweeping mountain vistas, high alpine lakes, world-class skiing, and thinner air. With altitudes between 9,000 – 10,000 ft. in most residential areas, Summit County offers up all those things and then some. You may not know that our high elevation also bestows an extraordinary gift upon its inhabitants: A longer, better life.
It may seem counterintuitive that a destination some individuals have to acclimate to simultaneously offers a myriad of health benefits. Still, it’s true: individuals who live in high-altitude places like Breckenridge, Frisco, Silverthorne, or Copper, have a lower chance of developing heart disease and certain cancers and tend to live longer than others.
In partnership with the Harvard School of Global Health, researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine found that people living in high elevation locations have a lower risk of dying from ischemic heart disease than people at lower altitudes. The 2011 study, dubbed one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind, also found that of the top 20 counties with the highest life expectancy, eleven for men and five for women were located in Colorado and Utah.
While the study mentioned above was conducted in 2011, publications like the Journal of American Medicine and U.S. News regularly publish lists of the top U.S. counties with the most prolonged life expectancy rates. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an iteration of that list where Summit County didn’t crack the top five.
In fact, Summit County, Colorado, was named #4 on U.S. News’s “Top 25 Counties with the Longest Life Expectancy” list for 2022. Notable statistics for this year include a 98.9-year life expectancy at birth (this figure measures health status across all age groups and predicts how a populous will age) and a population health score of 84.91 (U.S. News calculates health scores based on over 80 different metrics that measure a community’s collective quality of life).
In 2017, the Journal of American Medicine published a study that named Summit County the highest in the nation for overall life expectancy. In 2014, the last year that data is available, Summit’s life expectancy was 86.83 years.
In years prior, Summit County has repeatedly been named number one in the U.S. life expectancy category. We’re touted so regularly in publications about overall health, longevity, and quality of life, that if you Google “highest life expectancy by U.S. counties,” the search engine almost always displays Summit County as a top auto-result.
Our neighboring Pitkin, Eagle, and Park counties are usually close runner-ups, giving more credence to the studies that say a healthy lifestyle is synonymous with life at high altitudes.
When ranking life expectancy by state, Colorado is a clear winner. A Washington Post article discussing reports on life expectancy in the United States mentions just how staggering the gap is between Colorado and other parts of the U.S.:
“Life expectancy is greatest in the high country of central Colorado, but in many pockets of the United States, life expectancy is more than 20 years lower, according to the report from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.”
The article goes on to mention another study that shows a massive disparity in mortality rates from lung cancer across the U.S. and specifically mentions Summit County:
“Summit County in Colorado, home to ski resorts and the town of Breckenridge, had almost no lung cancer mortality — a death rate of 11 per 100,000 population in 2014.”
In 2014, Summit County had the lowest death rates from lung, breast, and prostate cancer, the most common types of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The numbers get even better: While (according to the National Cancer Institute) roughly 1.9 million people in the U.S. are expected to be diagnosed with some form of cancer in 2022, Summit County isn’t in line with the nation’s pattern. The most recent 10-year data (2009-2019) from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Colorado Central Cancer Registry indicates Summit had the lowest age-adjusted incidence rate for new cancer diagnoses per 100,000 people (272.9).
We could continue citing study after study, but you get the picture: life in Colorado’s high-country locations and Summit County, Colorado, in particular, seems to have an overwhelmingly positive impact on one’s life expectancy and overall health. The question is, why?
The answer seems to be two-fold. Experts believe it has a lot to do with our community’s lifestyle: Summit County offers a year-round outdoor haven like no other (seriously, move here and try to be a couch potato. We bet you can’t!). With over 300 days of sunshine a year, Summit has an unlimited supply of outdoor activities each season, and a new adventure always awaits. No wonder we’re Colorado’s Playground!
It’s no secret that regular exercise is linked to a longer life, and if you live in Summit County, being inactive is quite challenging. After all, who can resist an epic powder day when you can see the slopes of Breckenridge, Keystone, or Copper from your home’s backyard? It’s a luxury most people will never experience, yet next to impossible to give up once you have.
In a recent Summit Daily article, Ann Wilcox, director of the oncology service line for Vail Health, emphasized how our local lifestyle plays a role in Summit County’s lowered risk factors and glowing health statistics:
“We are fortunate enough to be in an environment where healthy eating and activity is part of our day-to-day,” Wilcox told Summit Daily. “You don’t say to somebody, ‘what did you do on the weekend?’ You say, ‘Did you do the peak, or did you do the river, or did you get on your bike?'”
All that said, a multitude of several other high-altitude communities – some with far less options in the way of outdoor recreation and exercise than Summit County – still rank among the top U.S. counties for longest life expectancy. Again, why? Surely, something is to be said for the obvious common denominator: living well above sea level. Right?
The answer is just short of “definitely.” Regarding the family tree of good health and extended living, lifestyle factors are closely related to environmental factors. Humans are inextricably linked to our surrounding environments, which encompass everything from air quality and UV ray exposure to water sources and oxygen. Many of Summit County’s environmental factors are a product of our high-altitude environment.
For example, Summit County has:
- Less air pollution than major cities (which exist at lower altitudes).
- A thinner atmosphere and more days of sunshine per year, which means greater exposure to vitamin D. (Be sure to wear your sunblock!)
- Delicious, entirely-from-snowmelt drinking water almost directly from the source – the Blue River – which services many other Colorado communities, including a large portion of the Front Range.
These examples of environmental factors are directly linked to better health and quality of life. They are also a direct result of our high elevation and decreased barometric pressure.
We aren’t entirely sure exactly how high-altitude living affects our bodies directly, but we have a good idea. Many ongoing studies suggest that living at high altitudes kicks our metabolic systems into overdrive.
When you live at 10,000 ft., each breath you take renders slightly less oxygen than at sea level. Our bodies compensate by taking more breaths, developing a more effective cardiovascular response, burning more calories, and producing more leptin, a hormone that suppresses hunger.
Now that we mention it, numerous bodies of research prove we lose weight quicker and have a more challenging time packing on the pounds at higher altitudes!
We’ll let the science and data do the talking: living at high altitudes, especially in Summit County, equates to a long and healthy life. Summit County real estate values aside, purchasing a property in the Colorado high country comes with a whole new set of values: living disease free well into old age (maybe even 100!)… and staying in shape while you’re at it.
Has all this information taken your breath away? Are you ready for your high-altitude adjustment? We’re here to help you realize your life dreams. Contact us today.