M13 — April 2012 — Extreme Altitude: Mt Everest
Intro: What do extreme athletes who can summit the peaks of Mt. Everest have in common with people with heart failure? The answer is: more than you might think. Researchers at Mayo Clinic say climbers or anyone exposed to extreme altitudes suffer some of the same physiological changes as heart failure patients. They're teaming up with National Geographic, The North Face, Montana State University and a group of extreme climbers to ascend the slopes of that mountain. One of their goals: to discover more about the body as it responds to high altitude in hopes of developing new ways to treat disease.
"It's a symbol of human achievement. To get to the top of the world."
Mt. Everest. The natural wonder beckons explorers to scale its vaulted peaks.
"The spirit of exploration is still alive and healthy."
It's this spirit of exploration that's inspiring a group of researchers from Mayo Clinic to ascend the slopes of this great mountain. Not to discover new vistas, but to learn more about how high altitude affects the human body.
"The scientist is not so different from an elite athlete or climber. We're both sort of chasing ideas."
Dr. Bruce Johnson heads up the team from Mayo Clinic. The idea they're chasing began when he noticed many parallels between the pathopysiology of heart failure patients and the adaptive changes in healthy high altitude climbers.
"A heart failure patient, when they're trying to exercise at sea level, for them, it's like being on a mountain trying to exercise."
They fatigue easily and are short of breath.
"What we're doing here is measuring lung function."
Their journey up the mountain begins in the lab. Here the climbers go through baseline tests to find out what's normal: lung function, heart function, oxygen levels: all the things that will be affected by altitude. An area of particular interest for Dr. Johnson is how the lungs handle fluid changes.
"It's the ultimate problem that usually brings a heart failure patient into the hospital."
And it's also a problem that brings climbers into the E.D. Rapid weight loss is another problem.
"One of the big issues associated with high and extreme altitude is rapid weight loss."
Muscle wasting that's seemingly unlinked to diet and activity level. It's also a problem for heart failure patients and many other chronic disease patient groups.
"We think there are lots of parallels."
With specially designed monitoring technology, the researchers will track the body functions of climbers as they ascend into the extreme high altitude of Mt. Everest. The goal of this expedition of discovery is to gather information that may help improve the lives of the thousands of people suffering from heart failure.
"The uncharted world is still out there."
For Mayo Clinic, I'm Vivien Williams.
You might wonder how they got all that equipment up the mountain. 13-hundred pounds of medical equipment were heaved uphill on the backs of yaks.
In addition to learning more about how the body responds to high altitude, Dr. Johnson and his team have other goals: to work with The North Face to improve and enhance products for climbers and the general public who venture into extreme environments, and to develop monitoring devices that can be used remotely to track climbers on the mountains and patients back home.
The expedition team also includes people from National Geographic, The North Face, Montana State University and the National Science Foundation.
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