Aging & Health A to Z
Basic Facts & Information
What is a Normal Heartbeat?
Feeling your heart flutter in your chest, even for a moment, can unsettle you—but it’s usually nothing to worry about. An occasional flutter, thumping, or racing feeling is harmless and perfectly normal—in fact, most older adults experience an irregular heartbeat every so often.
Take irregular heartbeats seriously if you’ve had a heart attack or suffer from coronary artery disease, heart failure, or high blood pressure.
A normal heart rate for older adults at rest is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Your heart might beat a little slower if you’re athletic or in good physical shape.
What are Arrhythmias?
Irregular heart rates or rhythms are called arrhythmias, and typically fall into four types:
- Extra beats from the upper heart chambers (atria)
- Extra beats from the lower heart chambers (ventricles)
- Bradycardia, an abnormally slow heart rate
- Tachycardia, an abnormally fast heart rate
Series of Extra Beats
Extra beats can occur singly, in pairs, or in groups. In some cases, they can be constant. When a series of extra beats occurs rapidly, they are either of two types:
- supraventricular tachycardia (if the beats come from the atria)
- ventricular tachycardia (if the beats come from the ventricles).
Atrial fibrillation happens when the upper (atrial) part of your heart contracts rapidly and irregularly. This is the most common continuous irregular heart rhythm in older adults. It occurs in 3 to 5 percent of people over age 65, and is slightly more common in older men than in older women.
Atrial fibrillation can lessen blood flow through the heart, lungs, and body. Sometimes blood can pool in the heart, leading to the formation of blood clots and a greater risk of stroke.
Bradycardia (slow heart rhythm)
Problems with your heart’s electrical signals can cause a slower than normal heart rate. Some medications, or low levels of oxygen, potassium, or thyroid hormone in your blood may be to blame, as can other heart problems. A slow heart rate can lead to heart failure or fluid buildup in the lungs.
Arrhythmias of the lower part of the heart, made up of the ventricles, are the most serious irregular heart rhythms. These arrhythmias may show up as premature beats on an ECG. If you’re healthy, having occasional “early” beats may not be serious. However, if you have other heart or circulatory problems, ventricular arrhythmias may require treatment.
Ventricular arrhythmias often occur as a result of other heart conditions.
In some cases, ventricular arrhythmias can lead to ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation, which is a life-threatening emergency. In ventricular fibrillation, the heart does not beat properly, and blood stops circulating.
Updated: March 2012
Posted: March 2012