Your health provider is interested in your vital signs: temperature, pulse rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure. Your pulse rate gives a picture of your overall health and fitness. It shows how fast your heart is beating, the strength of each beat and whether your rhythm is regular or sporadic. Since the heart is the pump that circulates blood throughout your body, and your blood carries the oxygen essential for life, this is important information.
What is a pulse rate?
Your pulse is the surge you feel each time your heart beats and pushes your blood along your artery. The number of surges you count in a minute is your pulse rate, or your heartbeats per minute.
How to take your pulse
Your pulse is usually taken at your wrist artery because it is the easiest to feel. Gently place your index and middle fingertip pads on the inside of your wrist, along the bone extending down from the middle and index finger of your other hand. Slowly slide it toward your thumb into the groove. You should feel your pulse jump up against your fingertips. Count these surges for a full minute. This is your pulse rate. If you cannot find it, let someone else count it for you. Other places you may find your pulse are along your throat or the inside of your elbow.
Normal pulse rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute. Heart rate slowly decreases with age, due to changes in the heart muscle as it ages. Therefore, the resting heart rate of the elderly will usually be slower than that of a younger adult. If you are walking or exercising, your pulse will be faster than if you are reading the paper. Emotional state, infection, medications and overall health can also affect your heart rate.
Historically, tachycardia has been defined as a heart rate faster than 100 beats per minute, although there is a current push to lower that to between 80 and 89 for the elderly. Cardiologists agree that tachycardia is a strong indicator of heart disease, high blood pressure, clogged arteries and heart failure. It may also be caused by anemia, hyperthyroidism, fever or infection or low blood sugar.
Bradycardia is a heart rate lower than 60 beats per minute. It may be caused by good physical conditioning, like the rates found in lifelong, elderly athletes. Or it may be caused by medications or something as serious as increased pressure within the brain, hypothyroidism, hypothermia or heart block.
Arrhythmias are irregular heartbeats. You may feel them at your pulse as thump, thump, pause, thump. Or you may feel a pounding, skipping or flip-flopping sensations in your chest. You may also feel faint, lightheaded, nauseated or breathless. What you are experiencing may be a premature contraction of the lower chambers of your heart, called the ventricles, or a fluttering of the upper chambers of your heart, called the atrium. It may be caused by a failure of the electrical system of the heart to correctly regulate your heartbeats. They can also be caused by chemical imbalances, medications or other heart disease.
If your pulse rate or quality worries your health provider, you will probably be sent to a cardiologist. She has many tools at her disposal for diagnosis and treatment. She may order an electrocardiogram, an echocardiogram, a stress test, a cardiac catheterization, or have you wear a Holter monitor for 24 hours. She may prescribe medications to help your heart beat more efficiently, or she may recommend a pacemaker.