There are times when it’s normal to have a rapid heartbeat such as when you’re scared, excited, or running a marathon. On the other hand, if you have a rapid heartbeat and underlying heart disease, you may be at higher risk of death not only from heart disease, but from other causes as well.
Is a Faster Heartbeat a Marker for Higher Mortality?
Researchers used data from two large studies that included 31,000 people age 55 and over. After following these older people for almost five years with heart exams and other testing, they found that those who had heart rates of greater than 78 beats per minute were more likely to die prematurely from heart disease – and from other causes as well.
This isn’t the first study to show a faster heartbeat is a harbinger of future health problems. A study carried out in Norway found that a faster heart rate at rest increased both the risk of heart disease and overall mortality. This effect was more pronounced in women, and regular physical exercise seemed to offset some of the increased risk – at least in women. This isn’t surprising since vigorous cardiovascular exercise is one of the most effective ways to reduce resting heart rate.
Why is a Rapid Heartbeat Associated with a Greater Risk of Death?
No one knows exactly why a faster heartbeat at rest is a risk factor for early death. One theory is a faster heart rate places the heart under greater mechanical stress, or it could simply be a marker for inflammation in the body. Inflammation damages the arteries and increases the risk of a heart attack.
Does Slowing Down a Rapid Heartbeat Reduce the Risk of Death?
Further studies are needed to address this issue. Regular exercise of moderate to high intensity can slow down a rapid heartbeat over time. At least one study shows that exercise offsets the higher risk of death in women, but less so in men. Exercise reduces other cardiac risk factors such as blood pressure as well, so it’s likely that it lowers the overall risk of death.
Faster Heart Rate and the Risk of Death: The Bottom Line?
There are still lots of unanswered questions about resting heart rate, heart disease, and mortality – but if you have a faster heart rate at rest, talk to your doctor – and make the appropriate lifestyle changes necessary to protect your heart.
Eurekalert.org. ‘Landmark study finds high resting heart associated with shorter life expectancy”
TheHeart.org. “First look at effects of resting heart rate and exercise on heart-disease deaths”