Your Heart Rate May Determine How Independent You Are as You Age

Pay close attention to your heart health now — you'll thank yourself later.

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When it comes to health problems that get in the way of older adults' independence, most of us think about aching joints or cognitive decline. But it turns out your resting heart rate might have a lot to do with your ability to take care of yourself as you age, according to an August 2015 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

Over about three years, researchers compared more than 5,000 older adults' abilities to complete daily tasks with their heart rates and heart rate variability — the interval change between heartbeats. People with the highest resting heart rates had an 80 percent increased risk of decline in performing basic daily activities, such as grooming and walking, and a 35 percent increased risk of decline in performing more complicated tasks, such as doing housework or shopping. People with the lowest heart rate variability also had a 25 percent increased risk of decline in both levels of tasks.

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These results don't surprise Johanna Paola Contreras, MD, MSc, FACC, assistant professor of cardiology at The Zena and Michael A. Wiener Cardiovascular Institute at Mount Sinai.

"In cardiology, it's been known for years that high resting heart rates have been linked to development of high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, sudden cardiac death and increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease as compared to lower resting heart rates," Dr. Contreras says.

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"A faster heart rate means more beats per minute and more stress in the vascular beds, and a faster heart rate gives the coronary arteries less time to fill with blood," she adds. "This can lead to an imbalance between heart cells' demand for oxygen and the heart's ability to provide it, which can be transferred to brain arteries and brain cells. It can be an explanation for the functional decline of the brain cells over time."

What You Need to Know

It's never too late to improve your heart health and delay functional decline. This study is a good reminder to be aware of your heart rate and overall heart health, says study co-author Behnam Sabayan, MD, PhD, post-doc research fellow at Leiden University Medical Center and the National Institute of Health.

"Our study highlights the fact that changes in cardiac function in old age should be taken seriously, not only to prevent heart attack but also for daily activities," Dr. Sabayan says. "I would suggest seniors who have irregularities in their cardiac function shouldn't ignore it. They should seek medical advice as early as possible."

4 Ways to Improve Your Resting Heart Rate

The first step in improving your resting heart rate is knowing how to measure it. Don't worry, though—it's easier than you think. Make sure you're completely relaxed, then put your finger over your pulse—either on your wrist or the side of your neck—and count the number of beats in 60 seconds.

The average resting heart rate for adults ranges between 60 to 100 beats per minute. A heart rate outside that range is a sign there may be a problem. (Unless you're an athlete, that is, who can have resting heart rates as low as 40 beats per minute because of how well-trained they are.)

Try these easy tips from Contreras to lower your resting heart rate:

  1. Practice deep breathing. "The best thing you can do is take deep slow breaths in and out until you slow your heart rate."
  2. Be active every day. "In regards to heart rate, the more intense the physical activity on a regular basis, the slower the resting heart rate that results." (Which in turn translates to a more efficient and better functioning heart.)
  3. Use stress-reduction techniques. "Several studies have demonstrated meditation can help slow the heart rate and improve brain function and creativity. It can also result in a significant reduction in the overall risk of heart attack, stroke and neurovascular death," she says.
  4. Avoid eating food or taking over-the-counter products that can increase your heart rate. "That means anything with a high content of caffeine or other stimulants. Always consult with your doctor before using non-prescription medications."
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