Ticking toward Trouble: Long-term rise in heart rate portends death

Men whose hearts beat faster over time are likely to die earlier than those whose hearts maintain an unchanging cadence year after year, according to a 20-year study of French police officers. But a heart with a slowing rate is likely to keep beating for the longest time.

The newfound relationship suggests that doctors could use trends in the routine vital sign of heart rate to gauge which of their patients are in danger.

Doctors have long associated a racing heart with poor health and risk of death, says Xavier P. Jouven, a Paris-based electrophysiologist and epidemiologist at the Georges Pompidou European Hospital–INSERM. However, no past study has examined changes in heart rate over time, he says.

Jouven and his colleagues studied 4,320 Frenchmen who were serving on the Paris police force when the study began in 1967. Participants began the study at ages 42 to 53. For the first 5 years of the study, each volunteer had a physical exam and other tests annually. Researchers kept track of the men for at least 15 additional years.

As a group, the volunteers were healthy and active at the study’s outset, Jouven says.

Some volunteers had modest increases or decreases in their resting heart rates during the 5-year period: One-fifth of the volunteers showed a rate increase of at least seven beats per minute; a similar fraction showed a decrease of that magnitude.

After adjusting for changes in weight, blood pressure, blood-cholesterol concentration, and other relevant factors, the researchers found that the men whose heart rates accelerated the most over the examination period were 47 percent more likely to die during the subsequent 2 decades than were men who experienced moderate or no change. By contrast, men whose hearts slowed the most over the 5-year period were 18 percent less likely to die during the follow-up period than were men in the middle group. Jouven presented his team’s findings last week at a meeting in Chicago of the American Heart Association.

A rising heart rate can be “an important clue” in a variety of health problems, including not only cardiovascular disease but also infections, anemia, and worsening pulmonary disease, comments Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

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