How Your Pulse Can Predict Your Risk of Death

Your resting heart rate is an easy measure of health and fitness, and a new study suggests that a rising rate over time may signal heart problems.

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There are several ways doctors predict your vulnerability to heart disease, among them: cholesterol levels, blood pressure, blood glucose levels and weight. Now a new study adds another measure to the list — your pulse rate.

Researchers in Norway analyzed data on nearly 30,000 men and women, and found that those whose resting heart rates increased over time were more likely to die from heart disease. The participants were healthy, with no history of heart conditions, and agreed to have their resting heart rates measured twice, 10 years apart, in 1984-86 and again in 1995-97.

Those whose resting pulse crept from under 70 beats per minute at the first reading to more than 85 beats per minute at the second measurement were twice as likely to die over a 12-year follow-up, compared with people resting heart rate remained below 70 beats.

People who started out with pulse rates between 70 and 85 beats per minute were also at risk of heart-related death; if their heart rates rose beyond 85 beats per minute by the second reading, they had an 80% increased risk of dying from heart disease, compared with people whose heart rates remained stable.

The opposite effect emerged in people whose heart rates dropped over time: those whose resting heart rate started out at 70 to 85 beats per minute and fell to less than 70 beats at the second reading were 40% less likely to die of heart disease than those who maintained their pulse rates.

Many factors go into your resting heart rate, including your weight, blood pressure, the medications you take and how much you exercise. Whether you are standing up or lying down when you take your reading can also affect pulse (that’s why your heart may race a bit when you first get up in the morning). Experts say healthy adults can have pulse rates ranging from 60 to 100 beats per minute. Elite athletes typically have lower heart rates, around 40 beats per minute because of their better heart fitness.

The study is the first to detail how changes in resting heart rate over time may affect risk of death from heart disease. Because the resting pulse is relatively easy to measure, the authors say it could be a good way to identify people who might be at greater risk of heart problems, and help them lower their readings by improving diet and increasing exercise.

To gauge your resting heart rate, find your pulse on your wrist or neck when you first wake in the morning, before you get out of bed. After you locate your pulse, using your index and middle fingers together, count how many beats occur within one minute. To make it easier, count the number of beats in 10 seconds and multiply by six.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.