High altitude living: genetic and environmental adaptation

Aviat Space Environ Med. 1999 Jan;70(1):73-81.


High altitude (HA) living produces physiological changes for adaptation to chronic hypobaric-hypoxemic conditions. Although much is known about these physiologic adaptations, no clear separation has been made regarding what is "native" or "genetic" adaptation and what is "acquired." In this review, we describe the genetic vs. acquired adaptation and only include studies performed in a population native to HA and not in an acclimatized population or trekkers. The changes encountered in animals and humans living at HA in terms of hematology, muscular, respiratory, cerebral, cardiovascular, hormonal, fluid and electrolytes and reproduction, strongly suggest that genetics play a very important role in HA adaptation. Unfortunately, the characteristic physiology of HA natives has not been systematically defined to established specific measurable parameters of adaptation in comparison to the acquired ambient adaptation of the non-native population. Once the parameters are established, we can compare non-native populations exposed to HA that must emulate the HA physiology for a definite adaptation to be present. With measurable parameters, especially in the management of fluids and electrolytes, we can define how long it will take for a sea level native to adapt to an HA altitude. Until these studies are performed, speculation will continue and no rational medical intervention can be offered to HA newcomers who may experience HA difficulties.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / genetics*
  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Altitude*
  • Environment*
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / etiology*
  • Hypoxia / metabolism
  • Hypoxia / physiopathology*
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
  • Racial Groups
  • Reference Values
  • Research
  • Time Factors