Blood pressure is a well-known indicator of cardiovascular health.
But there’s another test that requires no trip to the doctor’s office, needs no other person or equipment, is easy and quick to carry out, and costs nothing.
This test not only reveals information about your risk of heart disease, but your future risk of death.
All you have to do is… take your pulse. Here’s why this simple, familiar “vital sign” is such a powerful predictor of lifespan. . .
A Fast Pulse Spells Trouble Ahead
The number of heart beats per minute is referred to as the heart rate.
Taking the pulse after prolonged rest, in a state of calm and several hours away from stimulants like caffeine or depressants like alcohol, will provide an accurate resting heart rate (RHR).
While medics believe an RHR between 50 and 100 is perfectly normal, a figure at the lower end of the scale is considered better. It’s a sign of good health.
Since a person in tip-top physical condition will have a lower RHR, researchers from Norway were interested in whether this measure was simply a marker of physical fitness or whether it was a risk factor for mortality.
To find out, they enrolled 2,798 middle-aged men. Each was interviewed and undertook a number of health checks. After 16 years, there were 1,082 deaths among the group.
The researchers adjusted the findings to take into account fitness and other heart disease risk factors. Even so, the data showed the higher the RHR the greater the risk of death.
Compared to men with an RHR of 50 or less, men between 81 and 90 were at twice the risk of death. And if a man’s RHR was above 90 his risk was tripled.
Not surprisingly, the researchers concluded, “Elevated RHR is a risk factor for mortality independent of physical fitness, leisure-time physical activity and other major cardiovascular risk factors.”1
Nearly Halves the Risk of Heart Disease
A similar study has just been published in the British Medical Journal’s publication Open Heart. This time the research was conducted by a team from the University of Gothenburg. They analyzed data from 798 randomly selected Swedish men, all born in the year 1943.
When they reached their 50th birthday in 1993, they completed a questionnaire which asked about levels of stress, family history of heart disease and relevant lifestyle information. They were also given a medical check-up that included RHR, blood tests and ECGs to measure the heart’s electrical activity. These were repeated in 2003 and 2014.
While the 21-year study was in progress, 119 died and 237 developed cardiovascular disease (CVD). The results showed those with an RHR of 75 or above in 1993 had more than double the risk of death from any cause compared to those with an RHR of 55 or under. The high RHR group also had nearly twice the risk of CVD.
Participants whose RHR remained stable between the ages of 50 and 60 reaped the benefit of a 44% reduced risk of CVD compared to others who saw it rise by at least five beats per minute. On top of this, every beat increase from 1993 onwards was linked to a three percent higher risk for death from any cause.2
While the findings of these men-only studies cannot be applied to women, a well conducted study was published in 2011 which included nearly 30,000 healthy participants of both sexes.
An elevated RHR over a decade was linked to an increased risk of dying in both men and women. The researchers wrote that RHR “may be an important prognostic marker for…total mortality.”3
How to Lower Your Pulse
The best time to measure RHR is when you are in bed, having woken up after a night’s sleep. Just place index and middle fingers over the pulse point on the inside of the wrist and have a watch with a second hand nearby. Count the number of beats during a 30-second interval and multiply by two.
To reduce this figure over time, Harvard Health suggest four actions:
- Exercise every day by cycling, taking a brisk walk or a swim. This boosts heart rate in the short-term but lowers the resting rate in the long term.
- Lower stress – using any technique that works for you such as meditation or tai chi.
- Stop smoking. Smokers have higher heart rates.
Lose weight. Losing excess weight will give the heart less work to do and slow the pulse.