Every day of our lives, our hearts are consistently and continually beating, pumping nutrients and oxygen throughout our bodies to help us function and stay healthy.
Most of the time we don’t notice our heart and its musical, unending rhythm. We sleep peacefully through the night, watch TV or work silently at our computers without even noticing the quiet but steady beat in the background.
Our heartbeats are more noticeable at other times, however, like when we’re walking quickly, playing a sport or are startled or scared. Our hearts start racing or pounding, and we’re suddenly reminded of the essential role of our heart as it reacts to stress, anxiety or the need for more oxygen.
Both the quiet heartbeat when at rest and the frenzied pounding after a sudden burst of movement can be normal, but how do we know if we’re experiencing an irregular heart rhythm? What do we need to know and watch for to keep our heart healthy and stay safe?
Dr. Wobo Bekwelem, a cardiologist at Salt Lake Regional Medical Center, said it’s important first to understand normal heart rhythm, which is 60-100 heart beats per minute when a person is at rest. He said a normal heartbeat occurs as an electrical impulse and is generated in the top of the heart and then makes its way to the bottom.
Any heart rhythms slower than 60 beats per minute or faster than 100 beats per minute could be abnormal, with a few exceptions, said Bekwelem. Trained athletes or very active younger people often have resting heart beats slower than 60, and, of course, if a person is exercising, startled or scared, their heart rate may rise about 100 beats per minute.
Bekwelem explained a few different irregular or abnormal heart rhythms and their causes and symptoms:
Slow heart rate: Complications with medication, heart disorders
If a person has a resting heart rate of less than 60 beats per minute they may be experiencing an interruption in the normal electrical impulse of the organ. He said this is common in older people as a side effect of certain medications, or in people who have intrinsic problems with the “electrical system” of their heart that could cause it to slow, sometimes causing dizziness or fatigue. If people experience a slowed heart rate, especially if they suspect it could be due to a medication, Bekwelem suggests they see their doctor immediately to change medications or dosages. In the case of a slowed heart rate, a pacemaker may sometimes be needed to maintain a healthy rhythm.
Fast heart rate: deconditioning
There are several explanations for an increased heart rate. If a person experiences a resting heart rhythm greater than 100 beats per minute it could be because they are deconditioned, meaning they may be overweight or are recovering from an illness or a fever, said Bekwelem. This does not necessarily indicate a heart problem, and a person should address the illness or ailment or become more active to improve heart function.
Fast/abnormal heart rate: atrial fibrillation
If a person is older and experiencing a fast or irregular heart rate, Bekwelem said it could be atrial fibrillation. According to the American Heart Association, 2.7 million Americans are living with AFib, “a quivering or irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure or other heart-related complication.” This occurs when the top of the heart beats fast or irregularly, not pumping blood smoothly and allowing clots to form over time, which can break off and go to the brain or other parts of the body. Symptoms of atrial fibrillation include fatigue, fluttering or pounding in the chest, dizziness, shortness of breath, anxiety, chest pain or pressure.
If a person experiences any of these symptoms they should make an appointment with his or her doctor or visit the emergency room.
Fast/abnormal heart rate: Ventricular Tachycardia
Finally, Bekwelem described a more dangerous fast rhythm — ventricular tachycardia — which is a fast rate that begins in the bottom of the heart. Symptoms of ventricular tachycardia include dizziness, palpitations, shortness of breath, unconsciousness or cardiac arrest. People experiencing these symptoms require shock, CPR or resuscitation and should get help immediately.
How to maintain the right heart rhythm
So what’s the key to heart health? “Prevention,” said Bekwelem. “Staying active, treating medical problems and following doctors’ instructions” can all help keep the heart healthy. Bekwelem suggested treating sleep apnea and thyroid problems, and weight loss can also help prevent heart problems. He also suggesting learning whether there’s a history of high blood pressure or heart disease in your family, and visiting the doctor if you do, even if you’re not experiencing symptoms or irregular heart rhythms.
As for things to avoid? No surprises here: Smoking, excessive caffeine and an unhealthy diet can all contribute to abnormal heart rhythms and heart problems.
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