New York Times reports on strange correlations – especially a study that found high-altitude hometowns reduce your risk of lung cancer:
A paper published last year in the journal PeerJ plumbed the question to new depths and arrived at an intriguing explanation. The higher you live, the thinner the air, so maybe oxygen is a cause of lung cancer.
Oxygen cannot compete with cigarettes, of course, but the study suggests that if everyone in the United States moved to the alpine heights of San Juan County, Colo. (population: 700), there would be 65,496 fewer cases of lung cancer each year.
All of the usual caveats apply. Studies like this, which compare whole populations, can be used only to suggest possibilities to be explored in future research. But the hypothesis is not as crazy as it may sound. Oxygen is what energizes the cells of our bodies. Like any fuel, it inevitably spews out waste — a corrosive exhaust of substances called “free radicals,” or “reactive oxygen species,” that can mutate DNA and nudge a cell closer to malignancy.
That is not a good reason to consume antioxidant pills. While the logic may seem sound, there is no convincing evidence that these supplements add to nature’s already formidable means of repairing oxidative damage — and they may even disrupt some delicate biological balance, increasing cancer risk and speeding tumor growth.
But there is no question that oxidation, so crucial to life, rusts our cells and can edge them closer to becoming cancerous.
The authors, Kamen P. Simeonov and Daniel S. Himmelstein, eliminated other potential causes: maybe younger, healthier people live in the mountains; maybe fewer smokers go to the heights; maybe higher vitamin D from sunlight has an effect; maybe the air is less polluted up there; maybe people of certain genetic backgrounds tend to live in the mountains. They managed to nope out all of them. It’s the oxygen.
Or maybe higher rates of radon at altitude – the radioactive gas might protect DNA through hormesis.
But it’s something in air up there.