Our heart rates slow down as we get older. Thus, overly slow heart rate, or bradycardia as it is referred to by doctors, mostly affects elderly people. However, some healthy adults – even athletes – have a slow resting heart rate and experience no symptoms.
A normal heart rate for adults is considered to be between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm). Another factor which affects the heart rate is the level of activity. After doing some intense physical activity, the rate goes up because the heart has to work harder and pump more blood.
Opposite to that, the heart rate slows down when we are resting or sleeping. A heart rate between 40 and 60 bpm is considered normal during deep sleep.
Now that you know the basics, you must be wondering what does having a slow heart rate mean? Read on to find the answer to this question, discover tips on how to measure your heart rate, and learn more about the symptoms, causes, and treatment of bradycardia.
How to Measure Your Pulse
If your medical practitioner suspects that you have bradycardia, they will give you a physical exam. The exam may include an electrocardiogram (EKG) which measures the electrical signals of the heart. You may also need to wear a heart monitor for 24 hours so the doctor can track your heart rate over time.
Before going to the doctor, you can easily measure your temporary heart rate on your own. Since you want to test your resting heart rate, avoid any physical activity prior to this.
Sit down in a comfortable position and try to stay relaxed. The best place to check the pulse is on the side of the neck. If you prefer, you can also find it on your wrist.
To determine your pulse, count your heartbeats for ten seconds and then multiply that number by six. This is the faster way of doing it. If you want to be precise, you can count the beats for an entire minute and that will tell you your resting pulse. If your pulse is below 60 bpm, you have reason to believe you have bradycardia.
Children have faster normal heart rates than adults. To be precise, those are:
- Between 100 and 180 bpm for newborn babies
- Between 80 and 150 bpm for infants
- Between 75 to 120 bpm for children ages 2 to 6
- Between 70 and 110 bpm for children ages 6 to 12
If a child, especially a newborn baby, has a slow heart rate, it should be examined and treated right away.
Some people experience no symptoms of bradycardia other than a slow heart rate. Many others are not so fortunate, because a slow heart rate could lead to insufficient oxygen levels in the brain and cause many other symptoms, such as:
- Having a short breath
- Feeling weak and fatigued
- Feeling lightheaded and dizzy
- Exercising and breathing gets more difficult
Bradycardia can also be caused by some other, more serious disease. If the root cause is left untreated, a low heart rate could put you at risk of:
- Cardiac arrest
- Increased or decreased blood pressure
- Chest pains
- Heart failure
The most common causes for bradycardia are the malfunctions of the electrical circuit of the heart when something interferes with how the heart pumps out blood throughout the body.
The sinus node, otherwise called the natural pacemaker, is in charge of regulating the pace at which the bottom and top chambers of the heart pump blood to the rest of the body. If it does not work properly, the heart rate is affected.
Another malfunction that can put you at risk of bradycardia is an atrioventricular block, or AV block. This condition causes miscommunication between the top and bottom heart chambers, leading to a drop in heart rate.
With age, the heart’s electrical circuit gets worn out, which is why elderly people are the most subject to bradycardia, especially those older than 65.
Athletes are used to high cardiovascular activity and their hearts require less effort to pump out blood. As a result, their heart rate is slower, but this has no negative impact on them.
Illnesses and imbalances which may cause a slow heart rate include the following:
- Oversaturation of potassium in the blood
- Not enough or too many electrolytes
- An ineffective thyroid gland
- A disease which causes inflammation of the heart muscle
- Heart tissue damage due to old age or heart disease
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Bacterial infection which reaches heart tissue
Some medications can cause a slower heart rate. These include medications used to treat high blood pressure, heart rhythm disorders, and even some for psychosis. Complications following heart surgery may cause bradycardia as well.
How to Treat It
Having a low heart rate is not always a cause for panic. In many cases, treatment is not necessary. The treatment depends on the underlying conditions that could be contributing to the problem, the heart rate itself, and the age of the patient.
Since bradycardia doesn’t cause any complications on its own, doctors can easily identify what is causing it and come up with the corresponding treatment. Oftentimes, just adjusting the medication you’re taking can do the trick. Of course, treating the underlying conditions should be a priority.
For older people and patients with permanent damage to the electrical circuits of the heart, invasive surgery to implant a peacemaker may be the only option. This is an artificial way of speeding up the heart rate.
How to Prevent It
Although there is no specific way to prevent bradycardia, a good start is to reduce the risk of various heart diseases. The same goes for monitoring and sticking to your treatment if you already have a heart condition.
Here are some steps to ensure your heart stays healthy:
- Exercise as much as time allows you and stay in good shape. Avoid salt, sugar, and fat in food. Try to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables.
- Monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Take medications for lowering cholesterol or blood pressure if the doctor prescribes them to you.
- Quit smoking and avoid inhaling too much smoke from others.
- Avoid drinking too much alcohol. Drink in moderation if you have to.
- Keep your stress levels low. Meditation and some breathing techniques can assist you.
So, What Does It Mean?
What does having a slow heart rate mean? Sometimes, it does not have to mean anything serious. Many people are completely healthy despite their slow heart rate. Just to be sure, you should get checked for any underlying conditions that could affect your heart rate.
Now you know the best ways to prevent bradycardia and keep track of your heart rate at home. Still, if you feel some other symptoms of the condition, it is best to visit your doctor.