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One Heartbeat per Second to Beat the Clock

Immanuel Kant, the famed 18th century philosopher, described the chemistry of his day as a science, but not really science, as it wasn’t grounded in mathematics—at least not until a century later. The same could be said for biology, the study of life.

In math, physics, and quantum physics, there are constants: physical quantities thought to be both universal and unchanging. Biology, though, was considered too complex and too messy to be governed by simple, natural laws. In 1997, however, a theoretical high-energy physicist from Los Alamos joined two biologists to describe universal scaling laws that appear to apply across the board. Are there any clinical implications of these types of theories?

A fascinating observation was published. As I discuss in my video Finger on the Pulse of Longevity, the number of heartbeats per lifetime is remarkably similar whether you’re a hamster all the way up to a whale. So, mice, who typically live less than two years, have a heart rate of about 500 to 600 beats a minute—up to 10 beats a second. In contrast, the heart of a Galapagos tortoise beats 100 times slower, but they live about 100 times longer. There’s such a remarkable consistency in the number of heartbeats animals get in their lifetimes that a provocative question was asked: “Can human life be extended by cardiac slowing?” In other words, if humans are predetermined to have about three billion heartbeats in a lifetime, then would a reduction in average heart rate extend life? This is not just some academic question. If that’s how it works, then one might estimate that a reduction in heart rate from an average of more than 70 beats per minute down to what many athletes have, 60 beats per minute, could theoretically increase life span by more than a decade.

This reasoning may seem a bit off the wall, but that’s how the scientific method works: We start out with an observation, such as this striking heartbeat data, and then make an educated guess (or hypothesis) that is then put to the test. How might one demonstrate “a life-prolonging effect of cardiac slowing in humans”? Perhaps a first attempt would be to see if people with slower heart rates live longer lives. Unfortunately, researchers couldn’t just give subjects drugs that only lower heart rate. Drugs like beta blockers at the time lowered both heart rate and blood pressure, so they weren’t ideal for testing the question at hand. We can, however, do that first part and look at whether people with slower heart rates live longer.

“From the evidence accumulated so far, we know that a high resting heart rate,” meaning how fast our heart beats when we’re just sitting at rest, “is associated with an increase in…mortality in the general population,” as well as in those with chronic disease. A faster heart rate may lead to a faster death rate. Indeed, faster resting heart rates are associated with shorter life expectancies and are considered a strong independent risk factor for heart disease and heart failure. Researchers found that those with higher heart rates were about twice as likely over the next 15 years to experience heart failure. This was seen in middle-aged people, as well as observed in older people. It was also found in men and women. What’s critical is that this link between how fast our heart goes and how fast our life goes is independent of physical activity.

At first, I thought this was painfully obvious. Of course lower resting heart rates are associated with a longer lifespan. Who has a really slow pulse? Athletes. The more physically fit we are, the lower our resting pulse. But, no: Researchers “found that irrespective of level of physical fitness subjects with higher resting heart rates fare worse than people with lower heart rates,” so it appears a high resting heart rate is not just a marker of risk, but a bona-fide risk factor independent of how fit we are or how much we exercise.

Why? If our heart rate is up 24 hours a day, even when we’re sleeping, all that pulsatile stress may break some of the elastic fibers within the arterial wall, causing our arteries to become stiff. It doesn’t allow enough time for our arteries to relax between beats, so the faster our heart, the stiffer our arteries. There are all sorts of theories about how an increased resting heart rate can decrease our time on Earth. Regardless, this relationship is now well recognized.

It is not just a marker of an underlying pathology nor can it be said to be merely a marker of inflammation. The reason it’s important to distinguish a risk factor from a risk marker is that if you control the risk factor, you control the risk. But, if it were just a risk marker, it wouldn’t matter if we brought down our heart rate. We now have evidence from drug trials—indeed, there are now medications that just affect heart rate—that lowering our heart rate lowers our death rate.

It’s been shown in at least a dozen trials so far. Basically, we don’t want our heart to be beating more than about one beat per second at rest. (Measure your pulse right now!) For the maximum lifespan, the target is about one beat a second to beat the clock. Don’t worry if your heart’s beating too fast: Heart rate is a modifiable risk factor. Yes, there are drugs, but there are also lifestyle regimens, like eating beans, that can bring down our resting pulse. See Slow Your Beating Heart: Beans vs. Exercise.


Other lifespan-expanding strategies are detailed in:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Discuss

Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.


60 responses to “One Heartbeat per Second to Beat the Clock

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  1. Well lucky me then. My resting rate is in the low forties. I should live to be 125!

    I was in the hospital last week for a colonoscopy and while coming out of the sedative, my pulse would drop down in the high 30’s and set off all sorts of alarms.

    Supposedly, heart rate is like a golf score – lower is better. As long as it’s not zero!

    Not all a bed of roses though. I do often feel light-headed when I get up quickly – more so than normal people. Perhaps when I get older (75 now) this may become a problem. For now though, all is well.

      1. Bradycardia actually. Some marathoners have been known to wear a medical alert wristband to make known they have an unusually low heart rate, Bill Rodgers for instance. I also wear RoadID just to make it known I’m actually healthy despite being 1/2 century old. : )

        1. Yes, you are right. I have always called it brachycardia though – must be thinking of tachycardia I suppose. I just can’t shake the habit.

        2. Wearing an arm band is wisdom.

          My cousin goes into the hospital so often and they never believe him when he says that he is allergic to saline.

          They hear him say it, argue, give it to him, then, give him Benadryl after the symptoms appear while he is yelling at them, “I told you that I am allergic to saline.”

          An arm band is better than having to argue every time, especially if you might fail.

    1. RichardW- The current recommendation to decrease lightheadedness upon standing is to clench/tighten all of your muscles (legs, arms, abs, etc.) before and while you stand up. It’s what they currently teach nurses. I hope this helps!

      1. I have the same thing although my resting pulse rate isn’t quite as low as Richard’s. So thanks for the tip – although since I’ve never actually fainted, I’ve gotten to sort of enjoy the cheap high of the temporary head-rush. ;)

        BTW, I write this as I eat lunch, enjoying my leftover 16 bean soup and a nice Ezekiel toasted English Muffin.

  2. Now this is a fascinating subject! As a recently retired mathematician, I can appreciate the beauty of this weird connection between heart rate and life span in animals. Who would have ever thought that all animals would have a similar fixed number of heartbeats in a lifetime. It reminds me of the “Golden Ratio” in geometry, which was discovered by the ancient Greeks (Pythagoras, Euclid) but basically ignored through the centuries until recently it is being found in all kinds of seemingly unrelated natural phenomena along with the related Fibonacci Sequence.

    The other factor that makes this so fascinating is that the pulse is not just a marker but a “risk factor”. It seems like many times the medical community treats “symptoms” of an underlying disease (marker) rather than the underlying cause (a risk factor). And the fact that this phenomena is not really due to physical exercise: “Researchers “found that irrespective of level of physical fitness, subjects with higher resting heart rates fare worse than people with lower heart rates””

    When the video associated with this blog was first posted (5/23/2016), I went out and got my first smart watch, which measures one’s pulse every 10 minutes. Since I became WPF, my daytime resting pulse is consistently around 60 bpm, however, before that, I have no idea what it was, so I really can’t make a comparison. I’ve always done moderate exercise so that part is the same. Another interesting thing I discovered with my smart watch is that my pulse drops down to around 51 bpm while sleeping.

    1. This theory may be true in general, but not always.
      For instance, large dogs have a slower heart rate than small ones, but don’t live as long. Cats have a higher heart rate than dogs, but have a longer lifespan. So there are other factors that matter as well. Yes, biology is messy.

      1. Exactly Marilyn
        the theory is so full of holes , it is surprising it made it to be published today . For example lots of animals have very slow heart rates yet don,t live as long as humans . Horses have a heart rate of about 25 yet only live to be at best about 30 years old .

      2. Marylin,

        more dogs die of Cancer though and IGF-1 would be the factor with that.

        Little people don’t get Cancer as much as big people. Might it be the same for dogs.

    2. WFPB-Hal
      I don’t know if you already know that the Chinese Medicine (TCM) has a special pulse diagnose – they learn longer then 1 year, only to value the pulse of a patient!
      In the so called occidentel medicine we know ten simply pulse categories like power, size, speed, fullness, hardness, temperature and rhythmic in each case qualities (ti much, tu less, right). Beside this 30 simply pulses, we have much more composed pulses with names like “vermiculare”, “ant-like” or flowing pulse.
      The TCM knows about 200 (!) different Pulses, taken on different places at the human body.
      So, I think there is more, then only the pulse as a mirrow of the heart rate… and this can’t be pictured by a smart watch – sorry ;-)

  3. Yes, Mr. Fumblefingers some people indeed do think I’m pathological. But as far as heart rate is concerned, a rate that declines over the years can mean the heart’s electrical system is becoming diseased and is reason for concern.

    For me, this is a family trait and my heart rate has been this way since I was teen. If I do make it to 125, I may need to have a pacemaker installed so my heart doesn’t fall asleep in between pulses.

  4. My resting heartbeat is usually around 47-50 beats per minute. I’m not good at math, though: how long will I live? (joking)

    So… if we meditate or pray and lower our heart-rate regularly that way, are we extending our lives? Could meditation/prayer – which tend to lower heart-rate – be something like the other side of the coin from aerobic exercise/interval training? Speed up; slow down; good average all around?

        1. I know what you mean, YR. When I go into deep meditative states, my breath becomes very deep & slow. And I suppose my heart rate slows down as well.

          1. YES! And sometimes when I’m sitting there (in the half-lotus position :-) I’ll notice that hey, I’m not breathing! I don’t panic over it, I just observe that I haven’t taken a breath in a looooong time.

            But then something tells me okay, you’d better take a breath again, whether you feel you need to or not. After all, you ARE still on the earth plane.

            https://www.normalbreathing.com/yoga-breathing.php

            1. YES! Sometimes I sit there in wonder at how long it takes me to draw in & release one breath. I love that state. It’s a beautiful place to be.

    1. You could check out the HeartMath site.

      They have been around for many decades and use a biofeedback approach based on heart rhythms, rather than a faith-based approach or meditation/yoga/breath training techniques, to improve mood and heart perfromance. Some people prefer the technological appoach although physical disciplines like yoga/tai chi/breath training offer physical fitness benefits also. No reason why you couldn’t do both though.

      1. Fumbles, I’ve used bio-feedback several times in the past and prefer that over other methods. After all, our bodies use feedback loops continuously in the regulatory process of trying to maintain some equilibrium in all the complex components of the body.

  5. Ive had a pacemaker for most of my life that is set at 70. When I sleep, my heart beats at 70. I used to have a resting heart rate at about 60. But rheumatic heart disease really does a number on the heart. I’ve had 2 open heart procedures and several pacemakers. What are my chances of asking my cardiologist to lower the rate of my pacemaker to 60? I’ll ask, but I can already tell you what the answer will be. Maybe he will go for 69?

  6. I would like to see how Dr. Greger applies each piece of information into his own life.

    I am working on my DailyDozen and I think it is a good guide. I am, however, bothered with myself that I seem to be adopting these things as though I can use them “not to die.” I see that mindset with my boyfriend and in comments here. It’s okay to not go to the doctor, not have a colonoscopy, etc. I saw a comment at some point saying that this person was not having their daughter get the HPV vaccine because they were following these WFPB guidelines. I think those other things–doctor visits, health tests, etc.–are important too. We are always learning more that is worth incorporating, as we see when Dr. Greger changed his grain-bean mix he uses as his base for some recipes.

    I lived 18+ years with a non-WFPB family from birth. I’ve had 18+ years of second-hand smoke at home and work. Water and air, etc., contaminants from corporate sources. Stressors from all different directions, and many other things to compromise our health and well-being.

    So, Dr.Greger, please explain what do you do differently because of this information, and/or did you do from when it was posted before?

    Thank you and best wishes!!

    1. Jo, at one time Dr Greger was doing a question and answer session on Facebook and youtube. You could check FB to see if it’s planned for February, and ask your question through that format.
      I wanted to respond to what you were saying (I think you were saying) about people using wfpb eating as if that’s all they need. I am not a scientist or doctor, but I have sharp reminders once in a while that lifestyle plays a huge role in our present/future health, but other factors can come into play. Years and years of doing wfpb and exercise for example, and I now have persistent high cholesterol and blood pressure. Others have reported getting cancer or other conditions that require treatment. I believe my family would be a lot worse off without striving to do our best at wfpb eating and exercise, but common sense must prevail imo. As to treatments, know the risks and benefits, and make decisions accordingly.

    2. Jo,

      Blair posted a few of his answers, but he also has one on yearly physicals.

      Death by over-diagnosing, over-prescribing doctors is in the leading causes of death.

      But having a doctor who doesn’t over-diagnose and over-prescribe sounds like wisdom if you can find one.

    3. As he mentions in the videos and in his book, Dr Greger eats and lives based on evidence from peer-reviewed, published data. When new findings are better supported than older ideas, he changes his habits as well. Many examples of this can be found on the website, by searching just the word, “update.” https://nutritionfacts.org/?s=update&is_v=1

  7. fascinating. I’m curious though when low resting heart rate is accomplished through exercise does the elevation obtained during exercise somehow offset the lower heart rate obtained (means vs. results)? Am I using up all my heartbeats by high volume of exercise??? Regardless and until science finds out, the quality of life is much better for those heartbeats! :)

    Thanks for sharing

    1. Mike,
      Exercise lowers your average daily HR considerably because although it’s raised during exercise, it’s only higher than average for an hour or two (depending on duration and intensity of exercise) while it’s in it’s lower resting state for the other 20+ hrs or so. Meaning there are far fewer heart beats/day with fitter people who exercise.

      Reminds me of a statement by Neal Armstrong, Apollo 11 astronaut, who wondered the same thing. He said around that time that he believed the human body had a limited number of heart beats and he concluded (incorrectly) that elevating the heart rate through exercise would only serve to shorten lifespan! Hard to believe an astronaut would not understand why that would be false.

      1. I have a vague recollection that Armstrong’s was a common bellef for many years.

        It was possibly based at least in part on the observation that people undertaking hard manul labour often didn’t live as long as wealthier people who didn’t do manual labour.

        Also, wasn’t it standard medical advice during Neil Armstrong’s era to avoid physical exertion if you had a heart condition or were otherwise ill? His view may even have been the orthodox view at that time.

        1. Yeah, and back then, it was common for doctors to smoke in the exam room while meeting with their patients. I don’t think any of those doctors are still around…

          1. I want to believe that was so long ago that most of those doctors would have died from “natural causes” by now even if they weren’t smokers.

            1. Scott, I remember a time when a patient was out of surgery recovery and back on the ward, they asked for a coffee and an ashtray. If you didn’t have smokes with you they often had a stash at the nurses’ station lol Then starting in the 80’s hospitals started to segregate smokers and opened designated ‘smoking room’ fascilities.

              1. That’s amazing for me to think about, Barb. It is encouraging to know that progress tends to move in the right direction. It sometimes seems painfully slow and there can be some difficult setbacks, but I want to believe good prevails.

  8. The following is strictly anecdotal …
    This senior male’s resting bpm is around 60, and BP generally normal. BUT,
    I’ve found that when I eat fruit that ferments at suppertime or close to bedtime (e.g. apples, apple juice, dates; wine) I tend to get nightmares while the fruit is busy fermenting inside. I’ll awake in the middle of the night with pulse racing and BP greatly elevated (I keep an OMRON armcuff device on the nightstand).
    This has been consistent with me for years: fermenting fruit = nightmares. No fermenting fruit = No nightmares.
    Something for health-conscious NF readers to consider because it can’t be just me.

    1. Dommy, that’s very interesting and reminds me of a fascinating article I read online about mince pie. Does anyone eat mince pie (in the US, anyway) anymore? It seems to have lost its popularity. But there was a time in the US when it was immensely popular, but blamed for all kinds of psychological disorders. People were sure that mince pie gave people violent nightmares, and might even cause people to go a little crazy and kill someone or commit a violent crime, possibly while sleepwalking during a ‘mince-pie nightmare.’ I think it was around the time of World War II that mince pie fell out of favor and became less common in the US.

  9. I wonder what the drug is that only slows the heart rate, and whether it really just slows the heart rate without side effects. If so, is it indicated for prophylactic use? The degree to which a drug can prevent premature death (or lengthen lifespan) would seem to be the ultimate way of measuring its effectiveness. My guess is that it is not as benign as far as side effects as it was suggested.

    I took a medium to high dose of a beta blocker for most of my adult life. I think it used to be hypothesized that beta blockers extend life expectancy. Nowadays, there seem to be a whole lot more precautions about their long term use. They have fallen out of favor for blood pressure control. I use one for something else, but reduced the dose to a quarter of what it was after adopting a fairly healthy plant-based diet. I was getting episodes of postural hypotension before doing that. That’s my own experience suggesting that a plant-based diet lowers blood pressure (certainly not the proof, but that may exist). It may also tend to lower pulse rate. I’ve not monitored that in my own case, but beans are definitely a staple in my diet.

    1. Several years ago I was prescribed a beta blocker for high blood pressure and was unable to even walk fast, let alone exert myself by running. I quit that regimen pronto.

      1. They can add a major twist to exercise and fitness, but I thankfully wasn’t as badly affected as some. That’s probably because my sympathetic nervous system seems to be kind of “overactive” at baseline. I’ve seen running and other fitness experts declare that beta blockers work completely counter to fitness routines. I’m not sure whether l totally buy that, but there’s definitely some truth there. That was definitely so for you, it seems.

  10. There is the story of the tadpoles. The tadpoles that were fed a mix of thryroid glandular grew faster and had a higher metabolism. Is that good for today’s demanding high performance? Maye not since they also had a shorter lifetime. How do metabolism and resting heart rate compare?

  11. So how would a low heart rate along with diastolic pressure below 70 relate to longevity? I wonder if there might be a correlation there irrespective of the systolic pressure of say 120 – 130. What research might there be out there on this?

  12. Great topic, I swam competitively for 8 years, when I stopped at age 20 my resting pulse averaged 30 beat a minute. Never swam a lap scene. As I aged, I’m 63 now, my resting pulse slowly climbed. By age 50 my resting pulse had climbed to around 55 beats per minute.I also weighed 50 lbs. more at 215 lbs my cholesterol was at 220. My Dr. wanted to put me on meds. I asked if I could have a year to see if I could clean up my act. Long story short, I dropped 30 lbs. and my cholesterol fell to 170, heart rate stayed the same. My Dr. was amazed said I should get a medal. Then 3 yrs. ago I read How Not To Die, and went whole food plants “only” and took up walking every day 90 minutes minum. My resting heart rate fell to 45 beats per min. I wear a Garmin sometimes while sleeping my heart rate will fall into the high thirties. My weight went back to what I weighed when I quit swimming 165 lbs. total cholesterol last 3 years, 137, 150, 145. I feel great. Thanks Dr. Greger.

  13. High Resting Heart Rate Unsafe:

    “A resting heart rate greater than 80 beats per minute is a strong predictor for future heart attacks, diabetes and even cancer. From 1974 to 2002, 53,322 healthy people were followed at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas. Those with a resting heart rate lower than 60 beats per minute were far less likely to suffer heart attacks or to die than those with a resting heart rate greater than 80 beats per minute (Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 12/12/2013).

    Another study found that men with resting heart rates greater than 73 beats per minute are 140 percent more likely to die from cancer than those with resting heart rates of less than 60 beats per minute (PLoS ONE, published online August 03, 2011). Among 6,101 French men who were followed for 25 years, the chances of developing cancer rose with increasing heart rates. Compared to the group with resting heart rates of less than 60 beats per minute, those with:

    • 60-73 beats per minute increased cancer risk by 60 percent
    • Greater than 73 beats per minute increased cancer risk 140 percent.”

    Gabe Mirkin MD

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