Is High Heart Rate Variability (HRV) the Key to Longevity?
Heart rate variability (HRV) is a widely used marker for determining physical fitness and cardiovascular health—but it may also be a new way to predict longevity. Once used mostly by elite athletes to assess their readiness and recovery, research on HRV in recent decades has exploded with additional uses of the marker, including links to lifespan and cardiovascular, cognitive and physical health.
In this article, learn more about what HRV is and what it measures, how higher HRV is linked to longer lifespans and healthspans, and tips for raising your HRV.
HRV 101: The Tug-of-War Between Our Heart Beats
Simply put, heart rate variability is what it sounds like—a measure of the variation between heartbeats. While it may seem like our hearts beat evenly like a metronome, there is actually quite a bit of variation in time between each beat. For example, if your heart beats 60 bpm (beats per minute), it doesn’t beat exactly once per second. Rather, there might be 0.8 seconds between two beats and then 1.10 seconds between the next two.
The greater variability between your heartbeats—the further you get from exactly 1.0 seconds between heartbeats in this example—the more “ready” your body is to respond to stress and perform actively.
But these variations aren’t random—they are a reliable marker of how our autonomic nervous systems respond to stress. The autonomic nervous system is made of two branches—parasympathetic and sympathetic. Briefly, the parasympathetic is called the “rest and digest” system, which helps your body relax and lowers heart rate. Conversely, the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) puts your body into a higher-stress mode, increasing heart rate and blood pressure.
HRV comes into play when these two branches compete to send signals to your heart at the same time. A healthy and balanced nervous system (meaning your body is regulating stress well) leads to your heart being told to beat faster by your sympathetic system and slower by the parasympathetic side at the same time—sort of an internal tug-of-war.
These competing branches cause variations between your heartbeats. This leads to higher HRV when neither side wins the tug-of-war—when the “rest and digest” system is working well, it can prevent the “fight or flight” system from taking over. Conversely, if your body is not responding well to stress, the sympathetic side will “win” and send stronger signals to your heart than the parasympathetic side, kicking the parasympathetic side out of the game. This would pull the “rope” to the sympathetic side, which reduces the back-and-forth variability between heartbeats and lowers HRV.
Higher HRVs and Longer Lives
Recent research has studied the relationship between HRV and longevity. Several studies have reported that HRV decreases with age, leading researchers to wonder if older adults who maintained higher HRVs would have longer healthspans or lifespans.
In a 2020 study, researchers looked at HRV in young adults in their 20s, octogenarians in their 80s, and centenarians in their early 100s. Unsurprisingly, the young adults had higher HRVs than the older adults—but they were most interested in the centenarians. The researchers split the 14 people who made it to 100+ into two groups—lower HRV (10-18ms) and higher HRV (27-110ms)—and followed them until death.
They found that centenarians with higher HRV had greater survival rates by 1.6 additional years. Further, the lower HRV group had a 5-times increased risk of mortality, suggesting that higher HRV is a significant contributor to longevity. Notably, the longest-lived subject in the group was also the one with the highest HRV (110 milliseconds [ms]).
Other research, including data from Johns Hopkins, has found that each 10ms increase in HRV is associated with a 20% decrease in risk of mortality. Higher HRV was also linked to better cognition and behavioral scores in a meta-analysis of 18 studies, which could also play a role in extending lifespan. Similarly, research shows that low HRV increases the risk of frailty—a known contributor to mortality—and independently predicts mortality from cardiovascular-related conditions.
What Is a Healthy HRV?
Now that we know higher HRV is better, you may wonder what a healthy HRV value is. While these numbers are definitely not set in stone, old research from 1987 classifies HRVs of 50ms or less as unhealthy, 50–100ms as compromised health, and above 100ms as healthy. However, it’s also noted that it’s best to follow your own long-term HRV trends rather than comparing your HRV to others, as HRV scores are individual and relative to each person.
It’s also well-known that HRV declines with age, with people in their 20s commonly falling in the 55-110 range, while adults in the 60s typically see HRVs between 25-45. According to data from WHOOP, a heart rate and activity tracker, “The average heart rate variability for all WHOOP members is 65 for men and 62 for women. For 25-year-olds, it's 78; for 35-year-olds, it's 60; for 45-year-olds, it's 48; and for 55-year-olds, it's 44.”
How to Raise Your HRV
Fortunately, it’s possible to raise your HRV by maintaining healthy habits, including:
- Regular exercise: Physical activity—especially aerobic exercise—is one of the best ways to increase HRV. However, it’s important to avoid overtraining because repeated strenuous activity without adequate recovery reduces HRV in the short term.
- Reducing chronic stress: Lowering stress through mindfulness, breathing, meditation and light activity can reduce overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system and raise HRV.
- Sleeping well: Consistent sleep—especially adequate time in the REM and deep sleep stages—can increase HRV.
- Proper nutrition: Eating anti-inflammatory foods, especially those high in omega-3 fatty acids and polyphenols or other antioxidants may help to raise HRV. Research has shown that deficiencies in vitamins D and B12 are associated with reduced HRV, so ensuring adequate intake through sunshine, food or supplements is warranted.
- Limit or eliminate alcohol consumption: HRV drops by an average of 22ms the day after people consume alcohol. Plus, the effects of alcohol can suppress HRV for as long as 4-5 days after drinking.
Overall, although HRV values can vary individually, the research is clear that higher HRVs are associated with better health outcomes with age—and even longer lifespans.
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