We are all capable of checking our own heart rates. We can count the number of beats we feel in our wrist or our neck over the course of 60 seconds and figure out our own heart rates. Well, what if this simple measure of our body's function can help to predict our risk of death?
This question was tested by a Norwegian group and the results were published in the December 2011, issue of The Journal of American Medical Association. In the article, called "Temporal Changes in Resting Heart Rate and Deaths from Ischemic Heart Disease," Nauman and his colleagues found in this prospective cohort study that out of 13,499 men and 15,826 women without cardiovascular disease in Norway, those seen to have elevated resting heart rates ten years later from the onset of the study were at higher risk of death from ischemic heart disease and from all-cause mortality.
The resting heart rate is the heart rate we have while resting or while not actively engaged in an activity. This heart rate measure was taken 10 years apart in the study participants and then subsequent mortality was measured out for about ten years thereafter.
They found that people who had elevation of resting heart rate to above 85 were at twice the risk of heart disease death as compared to those with stable heart rates of 70 or lower. For those with resting heart rates that were above 70 at the first measurement but then decreased to a resting heart rate of 70 or below 10 years later, the risk of death from any cause in these people were reduced by 40 percent.
What I want you to take away from this prospective cohort study is not that resting heart rates are an exact science in estimating our death risk. This study does not establish a direct causal relationship, nor can it be declared as a stringent diagnostic parameter tool to be used for daily standard of care yet. Indeed, further studies are absolutely necessary to clearly define reproducibility and generalizability before we can use such a parameter regularly in our clinic settings for every patient.
However, what is interesting about this study is that it is taking a parameter that we ourselves can do easily at home as a rough guide for how our body is doing and to help us listen to our body more closely on a regular basis. In essence, this study reminds us to listen to our body because it knows something is not right way before we know on a cerebral conscious level.
When I read this study, the thing that popped out at me is that disease and changes in our body are years in the making. And even though we may not be consciously aware of all these molecular changes, our body is aware. Apparently, our heart rates may change years before our death as an early warning bell of potential health problems to come.
Another example of this is that on a molecular level, our blood sugar levels change over many years before diabetes is every diagnosed in labs. Cancer cells also do not spring up over night and again are years in the making before we are ever aware of them. And in the instance of this study, our heart beat might change to various minor levels over the years until our body finally decides to shut down.
So, while we cannot monitor every molecular change in our body on a global scale at any given point in our life, our body will in fact give us little clues as to how we are doing health-wise. The main take away point I saw from this study is that listening to our body is important. It will know when something is going in the wrong direction even before we do. So, take the time every day or every week and see how your body feels. If your body feels chaotic or your heart rate isn't how it usually is or your breathing is more labored, you need to slow down and have your health evaluated.
I find that we are way too often too busy to slow down enough to feel and acknowledge the early warning signs in our body. That's why I caution my patients to always take some time every day or week to sit or lie quietly and evaluate your mind and body to see if it feels right and on track to you. And if it doesn't, you need to pinpoint what doesn't feel right and address it. Whether it be difficulty sleeping, anxiety or mood lability more than usual, or extreme fatigue more so than the past... All of these changes should be addressed and evaluated sooner than later.
My patients are used to me saying, "Let's fix the leaky faucet before it overflows." I am saying to you now, that you should listen to the drips of the leaky faucet of your body for the early warning signs and not wait until the negative changes of your body overflows into serious disease.
It's important to remember at all times that our body is great at what it does... healing itself and fighting for survival. But if we are too busy running around in our hectic life, the early warning bells and drips from the leaky faucet may be unheard, and that's where we run into trouble with finding disease states way later in the disease progression. Preventing disease and maintaining health is always infinitely easier than treating a full blown disease.
So, let's time some quiet time every day of our life, and listen to the hypnotic thumps of our resting heart rate or other parameters of our miraculous body's sounds... and not let our health and heart start to beat faster toward that of worsening health.
 JAMA. 2011;306(23):2579-2587. doi: 10.1001/jama.2011.1826
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