Physiological adaptation of the cardiovascular system to high altitude

Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 2010 May-Jun;52(6):456-66. doi: 10.1016/j.pcad.2010.03.004.


Altitude exposure is associated with major changes in cardiovascular function. The initial cardiovascular response to altitude is characterized by an increase in cardiac output with tachycardia, no change in stroke volume, whereas blood pressure may temporarily be slightly increased. After a few days of acclimatization, cardiac output returns to normal, but heart rate remains increased, so that stroke volume is decreased. Pulmonary artery pressure increases without change in pulmonary artery wedge pressure. This pattern is essentially unchanged with prolonged or lifelong altitude sojourns. Ventricular function is maintained, with initially increased, then preserved or slightly depressed indices of systolic function, and an altered diastolic filling pattern. Filling pressures of the heart remain unchanged. Exercise in acute as well as in chronic high-altitude exposure is associated with a brisk increase in pulmonary artery pressure. The relationships between workload, cardiac output, and oxygen uptake are preserved in all circumstances, but there is a decrease in maximal oxygen consumption, which is accompanied by a decrease in maximal cardiac output. The decrease in maximal cardiac output is minimal in acute hypoxia but becomes more pronounced with acclimatization. This is not explained by hypovolemia, acid-bases status, increased viscosity on polycythemia, autonomic nervous system changes, or depressed systolic function. Maximal oxygen uptake at high altitudes has been modeled to be determined by the matching of convective and diffusional oxygen transport systems at a lower maximal cardiac output. However, there has been recent suggestion that 10% to 25% of the loss in aerobic exercise capacity at high altitudes can be restored by specific pulmonary vasodilating interventions. Whether this is explained by an improved maximum flow output by an unloaded right ventricle remains to be confirmed. Altitude exposure carries no identified risk of myocardial ischemia in healthy subjects but has to be considered as a potential stress in patients with previous cardiovascular conditions.

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization
  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Altitude
  • Altitude Sickness / prevention & control
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology
  • Blood Pressure
  • Cardiac Output / physiology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / physiopathology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / prevention & control
  • Cardiovascular Physiological Phenomena*
  • Coronary Circulation / physiology
  • Diastole
  • Electrocardiography
  • Exercise*
  • Heart Failure / physiopathology
  • Heart Failure / prevention & control
  • Heart Rate
  • Hemodynamics
  • Humans
  • Hypertension, Pulmonary / physiopathology
  • Hypertension, Pulmonary / prevention & control
  • Hypoxia*
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology
  • Pulmonary Circulation / physiology
  • Pulmonary Wedge Pressure
  • Rest
  • Stroke Volume
  • Systole
  • Time Factors
  • Ventricular Function / physiology