Your pulse, or heart rate, is the number of times your heart beats in a minute. Even if you know your heart rate, do you know how it affects your health or whether it's considered normal? Read on to find out.
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The Normal Range
Your pulse goes up when you're active and slows down when you're not. When you're at rest, it's known as your resting pulse rate. According to the American Heart Association, a normal heart rate for a 40-year-old woman (and all adults, actually) is between 60 and 100 beats a minute at rest.
"Although the normal range is 60 to 100, a typical resting pulse is around 60 to 80," says Michael Bungo, MD, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at McGovern Medical School and UTHealth in Houston, Texas. "Pulse does not differ much between men and women. A woman's pulse may be slightly faster. Women tend to be smaller than men. A small heart beats a bit faster."
How Does Age Affect Pulse?
"Children have a faster pulse because they are smaller, but by about age 9, they fall into the normal range of 60 to 100," explains Kevin Boblick, MD, an internal medicine and pediatric physician at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. "Pulse may increase slightly with age, but should still be in the normal range after resting for about 10 to 15 minutes."
Older people may have a faster pulse if they are unable to exercise and stay fit. "Pulse may increase with age, but it is not age that increases pulse rate as much as loss of physical fitness that comes with age, called deconditioning," explains Dr. Bungo.
Read more: Heart Rate, Exercise and Age
Slow Pulse: Bradycardia
"A pulse under 60 is called bradycardia, but it is not always abnormal," Dr. Bungo says. "A well-conditioned athlete may have a resting pulse of 50 or even lower. On the other hand, if you are a couch potato and your pulse is 50, that is not normal."
"Bradycardia that is abnormal usually has other symptoms, like dizziness or feeling like you are going to pass out," says Dr. Boblick. According to the Mayo Clinic, common causes of bradycardia include:
- Heart damage from aging, a heart attack, heart surgery or infection
- A heart disorder from birth (congenital heart disease)
- Underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroid)
- Sleep apnea
- Inflammatory disease such as lupus
- Medications, including drugs for heart disease, blood pressure and mental health
"One of the most common causes that I see is slow pulse in people using a beta-blocker medication for blood pressure," Dr. Boblick says.
Fast Pulse: Tachycardia
An abnormally fast pulse is called tachycardia. "A pulse rate in the range of 100 to 120, may be normal after activity, but if your resting pulse is over 100, it could be a problem," says Dr. Boblick. "Symptoms of an abnormal tachycardia include a pounding heart, chest pain and palpitations. By far the most common cause in older adults is atrial fibrillation." That's a quivering or irregular heartbeat, explains the American Heart Association.
Tachycardia can be temporary when caused by fever, smoking, stress, caffeine or abuse of alcohol or drugs, according to the Mayo Clinic. It also may be caused by disease or conditions that include:
- Heart disease, including abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias)
- Congenital heart disease
- High or low blood pressure
- Medication side effects or drug abuse
- Overactive thyroid (hyperthyroid)
Irregular Pulse: Arrhythmia
When you count your pulse, you can do so by putting your finger on your wrist or on your neck. You should feel a smooth and regular bump for each heartbeat. If the beat is not smooth and regular, you may have an arrhythmia, which is a change in how electrical signals in your heart control your heartbeat. Arrhythmias can cause tachycardia, bradycardia or irregular heartbeats, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
There are many causes of arrhythmia, and the risk for arrhythmia increases with age, the NHLBI says. "An occasional abnormal beat is probably normal, but if you have frequent or persistent abnormal beats, you need to see your doctor," says Dr. Bungo.
NHLBI warns that some arrhythmias (tachycardia, bradycardia and irregular pulse) may lead to a heart attack, heart failure or stroke if not treated. Always let your doctor know about any arrhythmia with:
- Changes in vision
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Fainting or almost fainting
- Anxiety or confusion
Read more: Vitamins That Can Cause Heart Palpitations
- American Heart Association: "All About Heart Rate (Pulse)"
- Michael M. Bungo, MD, professor of cardiovascular medicine, McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, Houston, Texas
- Kevin Boblick, MD, general internal medicine, pediatrics, Loyola University Medical Center, Chicago, Ill.
- Mayo Clinic: "Bradycardia"
- Mayo Clinic: "Tachycardia"
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Arrhythmia"
- American Heart Association: "What Is Atrial Fibrillation?"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.