Can Altitude Explain Utah's Suicide Epidemic?
November 18, 2014 7:52 AM   Subscribe

Based on a comparison of suicide rates at sea level and at areas above 2,000 feet, living at a high altitude may make people 30% more likely to commit suicide. Neuroscientist Perry Renshaw believes that it's due to the impact of altitude on the brain.
posted by stoneweaver (40 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
Welp, this is fucking terrifying.
posted by brennen at 8:16 AM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Interesting.

I had known that this region had a higher suicide rate than average - it's a sort of hardscrabble life here, well removed from everything. If you don't have a good income, it can be really hard to live here.

That said, even when people leave, they often come back.

All of that being said, I know I am so much happier here than I was in the Mid-Waste. So much. Anyway, don't plan on moving here. It's, umm, full. Yeah, there's no more room. In fact, take some people with you.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:23 AM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Isn't not the small beer ?
posted by k5.user at 8:28 AM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Maybe I missed it, but they're just comparing Americans living at high altitudes to other Americans, right? What about Peruvians living in the Andes, or those living in the Himalayas?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 8:32 AM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


I don't see any mention of non-US data. Did I miss it?
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:33 AM on November 18, 2014


/shakes fist at Hall and/or Oates.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:33 AM on November 18, 2014


List of countries by suicide rate.
posted by stbalbach at 8:34 AM on November 18, 2014


I think the theory is that if you are born and raised at altitude, you don't have a problem. If you move from a lower altitude, then there may be issues.
posted by pashdown at 8:40 AM on November 18, 2014


They do discuss towards the end of the article that this is likely to impact people in different ways due to biological factors. I wouldn't be surprised At All if indigenous people had adapted to altitude and were a very poor comparison group. We know they have better pulmonary function, so it makes sense there would be other adaptations to a low oxygen environment.
posted by stoneweaver at 8:40 AM on November 18, 2014


This is fascinating.

I was about to google up suicide rates of Colorado vs. Utah to pooh pooh the OP, but that map makes a pretty convincing case.

Additionally:
He heard that many missionaries in training diagnosed with ADD stopped taking their medication within a few weeks of arriving at the center. This medical quirk dovetailed with statistics about ADD and ADHD — the rate of diagnosis in Salt Lake City is consistently 50% lower than ocean-hugging New York City.
There are so many other possible explanations there (human-determined environment, rates of exercise, cultural understandings of ADHD, etc.), but that's interesting to think about. I mean, mild sleep deprivation is a mild anti-depressant, right? Why couldn't mild oxygen deprivation also tweak your brain?
posted by postcommunism at 8:41 AM on November 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


> Maybe I missed it, but they're just comparing Americans living at high altitudes to other Americans, right? What about Peruvians living in the Andes, or those living in the Himalayas?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:32 AM on November 18 [+] [!]


I don't see any mention of non-US data. Did I miss it?
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:33 AM on November 18 [+] [!]


Ahem:
In a 2010 study published in High Altitude Medicine and Biology, the Case Western group analyzed suicide rates across 2,584 counties in 16 states and found that suicides start increasing between 2,000 and 3,000 feet in all U.S. regions. The U.S. isn't a special case — analysis of suicide rates in other countries, including South Korea and Austria, bore similar results.
Emphasis added.
posted by languagehat at 8:51 AM on November 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's the small beer.
posted by 7segment at 8:54 AM on November 18, 2014


Fascinating. I used to live in Wyoming and had recurring bouts of depression starting at age 12. A few years ago I relocated to the east coast and I am still dealing with depression, although much less severe than previous episodes. I have been seriously thinking about going back out west because I miss the mountains terribly. Now I suppose I should reconsider.
posted by Librarypt at 8:57 AM on November 18, 2014


This explains James Cameron's happy place (SLOnion).

I know altitude changes affect me somewhat; though I grew up at about 4,500 feet above sea level and no longer live quite that high. Interesting.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 8:57 AM on November 18, 2014


It's an interesting article, but I wish he had more evidence for his theory that statistical correlation. The results from the high altitude rat studies would be interesting.

Doesn't change my desire to live in the mountains some day. Some of my best times/memories are from visiting Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.
posted by sbutler at 9:05 AM on November 18, 2014


> I think the theory is that if you are born and raised at altitude, you don't have a problem. If you move from a lower altitude, then there may be issues.

This implies a reciprocal: people born and raised at altitude are less likely to be subject to depression at lower altitudes than people born, raised and continuing to live at low altitudes.

Which isn't necessarily true (it actually sounds far-fetched) but interesting to consider.
posted by ardgedee at 9:22 AM on November 18, 2014


I had known that this region had a higher suicide rate than average - it's a sort of hardscrabble life here, well removed from everything.

That's definitely true, but the west has a lot going for it compared to the east coast. Here on the east coast, I have to deal with a long stressful commute, all the various problems that come with high population density, crime, pollution etc. I miss all these things about Wyoming -- no traffic, low crime, fresh air, space to move around without feeling constantly pressed in on all sides by just people everywhere. I have no idea if these things are contributing to my ongoing depression in this area, but that terrible slog of a commute sure isn't helping.
posted by Librarypt at 9:26 AM on November 18, 2014


While it seems like there's a definite effect, I'm a bit skeptical of the headline 30% figure since it's likely to be a noisy estimate based on a limited amount of data. I also have no idea why the authors of the 2010 High Altitude Medicine and Biology study are comparing the average elevation of the highest-suicide and lowest-suicide counties (for example here) instead of the average suicide rates of the highest-elevation and lowest-elevation counties -- my guess is because the effect looks a lot less clear that way.
posted by leopard at 9:41 AM on November 18, 2014


Hmm. Well, yet another problem if we ever want to colonIze Mars.
posted by happyroach at 9:49 AM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


The ADHD flip side is pretty interesting, too, though obviously pretty speculative at this point:

He heard that many missionaries in training diagnosed with ADD stopped taking their medication within a few weeks of arriving at the center. ... Renshaw believes that oxygen-poor air tampers with brain chemistry, leading to a drop in serotonin and an uptick in dopamine. ... By Renshaw's estimates, the brain makes about 20% more dopamine in the mountains.

Obviously this could be one more grave marker in the cemetery of dead correlations but it seems like this neurotransmitter hypothesis should be pretty possible to test with animal models, etc.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:00 AM on November 18, 2014


Altitude plus bad air additives plus attitude plus sleep apnea in obese and older populations, then add decades of nerve gas burning out west. Mobile populations without warning move in and then ski, exercise in the bad chewy air. Yeah, among teens the discrimination against gay children and other culture children, all factors in the rate. The Navajo reservation down south is at 5200 feet. There is a high rate of suicide among teens there.I love Utah, even if it is a difficult climate in so many ways.
posted by Oyéah at 10:22 AM on November 18, 2014


The "median elevation of counties listed by suicide rate" graph is fascinating, but I'd think "median suicide rate of counties listed by elevation" would have been much more informative.
posted by roystgnr at 10:23 AM on November 18, 2014


Truly that graph -- which wasn't done by the subject of the article -- is a crime against nature and abomination before God.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:26 AM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Maybe we should just start putting Prozac in the water here. I fight depression. Cumulative effect of the oppressive culture, shitty winter air, and now how high up I live too.
posted by msbutah at 10:27 AM on November 18, 2014


It could be the populations in these high, western states, center around toxic industries, or are served by sustaining industries, which in the beginning were away from high population areas. Now the oil refineries are right in the middle of dense population centers. One refinery had a Light Naptha leak which ran for years until it blew up outright. This occurred in the middle of an area North Salt Lake with the highest incidence of co-joined twins in the nation. The atmospheric soup of neurotoxins can't be the author of happiness.
posted by Oyéah at 10:31 AM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Move up to Honeyville, the water is full of Lithium.
posted by Oyéah at 10:47 AM on November 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Utah comes in tenth in one list, and fifteenth in another list of states by suicide rate. Alaska consistently comes in first. Looking at the list, while most of these states do have mountains, the other thing most have in common are harsh winters, combined with a lack of shit to do.
Here's one such list.
posted by sudon't at 11:42 AM on November 18, 2014


Economic factors aren't exactly independent of altitude, i.e. distance from waterways and the commerce they bring.
posted by effugas at 11:55 AM on November 18, 2014


I never really articulated it to myself before why I thought Utah had a high suicide rate, and when I do now, it sounds silly and clearly a product of thinking halfway through. But I guess I figured there's a huge emphasis on being/appearing cheerful and happy in Mormonism and since Utah has a high rate of prescriptions for antidepressants I just messily attributed it not being able to deal with the exhausting burden/pressure of appearing happy. I especially felt like Mormon moms with their mom blogs probably exemplified that struggle, because they make their lives seem so perfect and expertly managed despite the huge brood of kids, and even on the web, it appeared they had no room to vent or express frustration.

I guess it could be altitude. I hope it is. I want those ladies to be as happy as they present their lives to be.
posted by discopolo at 12:02 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Trust me, they aren't. One grows adept at spotting false happiness and smiles around these parts. They generally (and I'm aware I'm painting a large swath here) aren't. Not to say everyone is that way - it's the bell curve distribution. Everyone has their problems, and the far ends of the spectrum are either abnormally content or not contented with that life.
posted by msbutah at 12:55 PM on November 18, 2014


I acknowledge the researcher's findings; sure, altitude is part of it. But I'm uncomfortable concluding that there's no cultural component at all. I mean, can I just state the obvious about the high-altitude areas in the mountainous regions of the world: they have traditionally been pretty hard to get to and from. Even with modern transportation and communication, many people still have a cultural idea that you go to the mountains to be alone (or alone with a group), to get away from it all. Did the researcher rule out an impulse toward isolation from being any part of the story about altitude and depression?

I appreciate that the article says this: Multiple overlapping factors, he says, are likely in play.

But it still seems awfully dismissive of possible cultural factors in some parts, without addressing them thoroughly enough to rule them out, at least not to my mind: "You tell me how Salt Lake City and Las Vegas have the same culture."

Just off the top of my head: How the Mormons made Las Vegas (short answer, Mormons have an outsize influence on the culture because they are less transient than other Las Vegas residents and are overrepresented in community leadership).

"Nevada and Colorado also have high suicide rates"

I'm not sure there has to be a direct correlation between LDS population and suicide rate for the culture to potentially be a factor; more likely, there just needs to be a critical mass of LDS, enough to have an influence on the culture. This map shows quite a few counties in Nevada and Colorado have significant LDS populations. This map shows that Utah, Nevada, and Idaho all have >10% of population that identifies as Mormon.

I would also point out that people cycle in and out of the Mormon church. Wouldn't it make sense that people who no longer identify as Mormon and/or are no longer officially on the church's records, would be more likely to be depressed or suicidal in a way that is related to their brush with Mormonism than people who choose to remain Mormon? Has the researcher attempted to account for such folks at all?
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 5:01 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


This map shows quite a few counties in Nevada and Colorado have significant LDS populations.

Am I reading that wrong? It looks like it's saying Denver is 66% Mormon.
posted by postcommunism at 6:33 PM on November 18, 2014


I'm not sure there has to be a direct correlation between LDS population and suicide rate for the culture to potentially be a factor; more likely, there just needs to be a critical mass of LDS, enough to have an influence on the culture.

Analysis shows similar results in other countries. Assuming this and this are accurate Mormons are .05% of the population.

Am I reading that wrong? It looks like it's saying Denver is 66% Mormon.

I think you're looking at the wrong square(ish) state. Colorado is the upper right hand of the four corner states
posted by Gygesringtone at 7:56 PM on November 18, 2014


Oops missed a link, this should be the second this
posted by Gygesringtone at 8:14 PM on November 18, 2014


Gygesringtone, my comments about Nevada and Colorado were not intended to apply to Austria. I addressed other countries in my first paragraph only. Sorry that my switch from international to US-only was unclear.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:34 PM on November 18, 2014


I don't think average elevation in each county is very meaningful. There are lots of counties with 14,000 foot peaks but nobody lives up there. They live in the valleys between the mountains so average elevation does not correlate very well with the population.

My guess is that that higher elevations are correlated with small, rural, remote towns where people who are slightly off-spectrum find it hard to fit in.
posted by JackFlash at 9:49 PM on November 18, 2014


I think you're looking at the wrong square(ish) state.

So I was! I saw stacked horizontal counties by the state border and thought it was the western slope. (Lot of my childhood was out there, too -- oops.)
posted by postcommunism at 5:05 AM on November 19, 2014


it is the presence of mr. crash davis.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 7:28 AM on November 19, 2014


Recently Utah was tagged as the state worst for women. There are cultural links.
posted by Oyéah at 12:15 PM on November 19, 2014


It mentions that his work "won't gain mainstream acceptance for a while".

At one point he mentions Marines doing hard training in the mountains for 30 days, and afterwards feeling depressed, and uses that as one of his datapoints, and it mentions that "Renshaw collected anecdotes that supported his developing theory."

I'm not surprised this doesn't have mainstream acceptance.
posted by eye of newt at 9:46 PM on November 19, 2014


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