Adapting to Extreme Altitudes

Noted physical anthropologist Cynthia Beall discusses her research into ways people living at extreme altitudes adapt and cope.

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (October 23, 2013) — During the course of her research on indigenous populations living in some of the world’s tallest mountain regions, physical anthropologist Cynthia Beall discovered that Himalayan Tibetans have a different way of adapting to being oxygen-deprived at high altitude.

Instead of their bodies producing more red blood cells as lowlanders and other high-altitude populations do, Tibetans exhale high concentrations of nitric oxide, a gas that inside the body expands blood vessels and improves blood flow and oxygen delivery to tissue.

That was among some of the research findings Beall, Distinguished University Professor at Case Western Reserve University, shared with a group of University of Miami faculty members on Monday at the Newman Alumni Center.

Her talk, “Adaption and Health among Highlanders of the Andes, Tibet, and Ethiopia,” was presented by UM’s Scientists and Engineers Expanding Diversity and Success (SEEDS) initiative, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of Anthropology. Her work among Andean, Tibetan and East African highlanders is widely regarded as having broadened our understanding and knowledge of human evolution and high-altitude adaptation.

Cynthia Beall

Highlighting the research that has earned her international renown, Beall noted that some native highlanders in Ethiopia share with Tibetans the ability to maintain low blood hemoglobin concentrations at high altitude, making them less susceptible to chronic mountain sickness.

She noted that improving the health of Tibetan women and children is now a new aspect of her work.

For Ann Brittain, an associate professor of anthropology at UM, Beall’s lecture was a reunion of sorts because she attended graduate school with Beall at Penn State. “She was always highly intelligent, energetic,” Brittain said of Beall. “We always knew she was going places.”

Beall had a private lunch with a group of UM graduate students on Tuesday.

Robert C. Jones Jr. can be reached at 305-284-1615.

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