We know our bodies are sure to slow down as we age, but what about your heart? What happens when your heart beats slow down and is it good or bad?
Bradycardia, a slow heart rate, is common in older adults. While it’s not always a problem, it does require treatment in some cases.
As we age, there’s usually some normal wear and tear of the electrical system of the heart. As a result, your heart’s normal rhythm has a tendency to slow down.
If you don’t experience any symptoms, there’s no reason to worry. However, it’s always a good idea to know the signs of trouble if you experience them. Prompt attention from your doctor may save you from irreversible damage.
Doctors consider a heart rate below 60 beats per minute as low. If you have true bradycardia, you’ll have a sustained heart rate below 60 even when you’re awake and active.
- A normal range is from 60 to 100 beats-per-minute while awake.
Be aware, however, that your heart rate can also slow down normally to 40-60 beats per minute while you’re asleep.
- For most young people, highly trained athletes, and people who exercise regularly, a below-60 heart rate is normal and healthy. It’s also very possible to have a slow heart rate and experience no symptoms.
But…if you do have symptoms, but ignore them, it can lead to more serious problems.
See your doctor if you are experiencing some of these symptoms along with a slow heart rate:
- Lack of energy
- Low stamina
- Chest pains
- Confusion/memory problems
- Heart palpitations or flutters
If your heart rate drops into the 30s, you may not get enough oxygen to your brain, causing you to feel lightheaded, short of breath and/or fainting.
The most common cause of bradycardia is a malfunction in the heart’s natural pacemaker, the sinus node.
The sinus node controls how quickly the top and bottom heart chambers pump blood through the body.
Another potential cause is atrioventricular block (AV Block), a condition in which the top and bottom chambers of your heart don’t communicate well, dropping the heart rate as a result.
It’s much like having electrical cables and wires inside your heart: They wear down as we age.
Some of the most common medications prescribed to the older population can also cause bradycardia. It’s important to clarify which ones if you’re caring for an aging relative, or for your own
Age is the most common risk factor for developing bradycardia, more prevalent among men and women over the age of 65. However, there are other conditions which may result in a slower heart rate.
- Heart attacks due to coronary artery disease
- A bacterial infection in the blood that attacks the heart
- Inflammation of the heart muscle
- Low thyroid function
- An electrolyte imbalance
- Too much potassium in the blood
- Certain medications, including beta blockers and antiarrhythmics
- Congenital heart defects
- Chronic hypertension (high blood pressure)
What To Expect
Your doctor will want to ask you about your day to day activities and give you a physical exam.
- He or she may use an electrocardiogram (EKG) to measure the electrical signals in your heart and determine if they’re firing correctly.
If treatment is necessary, he or she will try to rule out any pre-existing causes for the slow heart rate, and all the medicines you may be taking that could potentially affect it.
Sometimes just changing some of your medications can solve the problem.
If, after trying all of the above, the slow heart rate continues, your doctor may recommend an implantable pacemaker, which is placed in a minimally invasive surgery.
Fortunately, bradycardia is rarely an emergency, so doctors have time to evaluate the condition and rule out the possibility of any other condition causing it.