High Altitude and Cancer Mortality

High Alt Med Biol. 2018 Jun;19(2):116-123. doi: 10.1089/ham.2017.0061. Epub 2018 Feb 1.


Thiersch, Markus, and Erik R. Swenson. High altitude and cancer mortality. High Alt Med Biol 19:116-123, 2018.-Humans living at high altitude (HA) are exposed to chronic (hypobaric) hypoxia. Despite the permanent stress of hypoxic exposure, humans populating HA areas have reduced cancer mortality over a broad spectrum of cancer types. In fact, the majority of the physiological adaptive processes at HA occurring in response to hypoxia might be the driving force for reduced cancer mortality at HA. In this review, we summarize epidemiological and animal studies that compare cancer incidence and cancer mortality between HA and low altitude or between hypoxia and normoxia, respectively. We discuss the potential role of oxygen-independent and oxygen-dependent mechanisms that might contribute to reduced cancer mortality at HA. Reactive oxygen species and their detoxification as well as the hypoxia-inducible factors are especially promising targets and may be related to why cancer mortality is reduced at HA. In addition, we briefly discuss two aspects with a proven impact on tumorigenesis, namely the immune system and tumor surveillance as well as HA-induced metabolic changes. Further animal and clinical studies are clearly needed to explain why cancer mortality is reduced at HA and to decide whether HA or hypoxia-based therapeutic approaches could be implemented for cancer treatment. However, exposure to HA activates multiple adaptive mechanisms (oxygen independent and oxygen dependent) sharing common pathways as well as activating counteracting pathways, which complicate the identification of specific HA-induced mechanisms of tumor suppression.

Keywords: cancer mortality; high altitude; immune system; oxygen.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization / physiology*
  • Altitude Sickness / complications
  • Altitude Sickness / physiopathology*
  • Altitude*
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / complications
  • Neoplasms / mortality*
  • Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism


  • Reactive Oxygen Species