Heart rate variability allows to measure, and therefore foster healthy longevity
We all dream of a long life unencumbered by major illnesses. And for all of us who are willing to invest in that perspective, this saying holds true – “You can only manage what you can measure”. Heart rate variability (HRV) enables us to build a strategy and reach our longevity goals.
Researchers look at centenarians to identify what makes us live longer lives. What are the factors which enable healthy aging, and avoid major age-related diseases? To answer this question, a study was conducted by a team from various universities in Spain. The investigation focused on potential differences in resting HRV between centenarians, octogenarians, and young adults.
Heart rate variability explained
The time interval between the heartbeats of a healthy heart is constantly fluctuating. This fluctuation reflects the regulation of the heart rate (HR) by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Intervals over a given time period are referred to as heart rate variability (HRV); this index of autonomic function is applied as a non-invasive tool to measure health and wellbeing. Greater variability indicates that one’s body can greater ability of the autonomic nervous system to regulate itself, whereas low HRV can be a symptom of physical or mental illness.
Among further results, the study from Spain showed a clear decrease with age in the main parasympathetic HRV variables, as well as in the standard deviation of the normal-to-normal interval (SDNN) and in low frequency (LF) heart rate oscillations. Researchers concluded that “HRV indices reflecting parasympathetic outflow as well as SDNN and LF all present an age-related reduction, which could be representative of a natural exhaustion of allostatic systems related to age.” Moreover, SDNN values below 19 ms could be associated with early mortality in centenarians. HRV, researchers emphasize, appears to play a role in exceptional longevity, which could be accounted for by the exposome of centenarians – the measure of all the exposures of an individual in a lifetime and how those exposures relate to health.
Another study, conducted by a team of the Geriatric Medicine Section of the University of Illinois at the Chicago College of Medicine in the U.S., looks more deeply into findings that aging is associated with a progressive decrease in HRV. Authors state that, whereas research suggests that longevity might depend on preservation of autonomic function, “little is known about late life changes”. The Chicago team assessed the relation between autonomic function and longevity by way of a cross-sectional study of HRV of 344 healthy subjects aged 10 to 99 years. Results showed that “healthy longevity depends on preservation of autonomic function, in particular, HRV-parasympathetic function, despite the early age-related decrease.” In particular, “the eighth (life) decade reversal of the decrease in HRV-parasympathetic function and its subsequent increase are key determinants of longevity. Persistently high HRV in the elderly represents a marker predictive of longevity.”
Let’s build our strategy for longevity
It appears HRV, and the body’s ability to repair itself, decline naturally with age. They generally reach a minimum in the 70s. “Living for longer and remaining healthy seems to depend on a good genetic makeup”, according to an article by Simon Wegerif; so that one’s HRV begins and continues above average levels for one’s age. On the other hand, longevity may depend on “lifestyle choices that boost HRV”. The author suggests that, most likely, a combination of both leads to a healthy long life.
With the option of influencing our lifestyle in a way that fosters longevity, we may opt to start measuring our HRV as a predictor. Easy-to-use technology is readily available, including apps on smartphones. And guidance by healthcare professionals will support our path towards tapping our full individual life span potential.