Causes, symptoms, and treatment for a slow heart rate.
Minute after minute, day after day, year after year, your heart steadily beats away, pumping blood to every area of the body to keep you alive. You take for granted its hard work until you notice it’s not doing its job. The heart is a complex organ and a lot of things can go wrong with it.
Sometimes this happens suddenly and painfully (a heart attack), but many times it happens slowly and almost undetected. Some heart abnormalities have to do with the speed of the heart rate. A beat that’s too fast or too slow (two types of heart arrhythmias) can cause a variety of unpleasant health symptoms.
When you take your pulse, a normal resting beat should be between 60 and 100 beats per minute. A heart rate less than 60 is called bradycardia and is considered abnormal unless you’re a seasoned athlete. Here’s what you need to know if you detect a slow heartbeat.
Keep Up the Pace
Your heart was made with its own natural pacemaker, which continually sends electrical signals to prompt the heart to beat. As you age, this pacemaker gets tired, may slow down, or have its signal blocked by scar tissue. Sometimes the part of the heart that receives the electrical signals from the pacemaker stops working well or becomes blocked, which can also lead to bradycardia.
The reduced speed of the sending and receiving of signals is a normal part of the aging process and typically begins in a person’s 70s. But aging isn’t the only cause. Heart disease, blood pressure medication, diabetes, smoking, obesity, drug or alcohol abuse, high cholesterol, an unhealthy diet, stress, or congenital heart problems may all contribute to the loss of function in your heart and a slowed beat.
People with mild bradycardia often feel no symptoms, but as the heart continues to slow down and blood flow decreases to the mind and body, you’ll feel fatigued, dizzy, or lightheaded. Walking up stairs, doing household chores, or exerting yourself in any activity become difficult and leave you feeling exhausted and short of breath. You may even have trouble sleeping or remembering things. Sometimes the heart may feel like it’s fluttering or skipping a beat. Severe bradycardia may cause chest pain, continual shortness of breath, fainting, and—if left untreated, cardiac arrest (an emergency situation when the heart stops beating).
A New Pacemaker
When your built-in, natural pacemaker is no longer able to keep up, it may be time to get a new one. For mild cases with few to no symptoms, your doctor may choose to monitor your condition and not recommend any treatment. For many people, a slow heart rate is nothing to be concerned about and is something you simply adjust to as you age. If your quality of life is still good and you’re able to do normal activities without trouble, a pacemaker may not be necessary.
But for those with more serious bradycardia, whether it has symptoms or not, your doctor may advise you to get a pacemaker. About the size of a half dollar, a pacemaker is inserted under your skin through minor surgery. This life-saving device is able to detect a slow heartbeat. If it becomes too slow, your pacemaker sends signals to speed it up. While a very high-tech device, it consists only two parts, the pulse generator and leads. The generator contains the battery and electrical parts that regulate the electrical signals sent to your heart via the leads (small wires connected to your heart that carry the electrical signals for heart rate).
So if your heart is slowing down, pay attention and check with your physician to ensure it’s not in need of a little jolt!