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Health answers: How does heart rate change with age?

Q. How does heart rate change with age?

A. Your resting heart rate — the number of times your heart beats per minute while your body is relaxed and at rest — does not change significantly with age. But Lewis Lipsitz, director of the Institute for Aging Research at Hebrew SeniorLife, says that one of the more universal changes with age “is in the ability of the heart to increase its rate during exercise and other periods of stress.” When challenged to pump faster, younger hearts speed up more than older ones.

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Maximum heart rate — the highest heart rate you can achieve safely as measured by a cardiac stress test — declines gradually in adults as they age, barring any heart-related health problems. Research suggests that a slowing down of the heart’s pacemaker cells is to blame.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advocates exercising at a target heart rate between 50 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate during moderate exercise, and 70 to 85 percent during vigorous exercise. For a rough estimate of your age-related maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220.

As adults age, they can compensate for their slower hearts by making the most of every beat. “With training, one can make the heart bigger,” says Lipsitz. A bigger, more powerful heart compensates for a slower speed by moving more blood with each stroke. The goal of exercise in older adults, says Lipsitz, is “to make each beat more effective in delivering blood to the rest of the body.”

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