Listen to your heart: Do you know how to check for a normal heartbeat? It could save your life

Knowing what a normal resting heart rate should be could be instrumental in saving your life.
Knowing what a normal resting heart rate should be could be instrumental in saving your life.
Getty Images/The Good Brigade
  • Every hour in South Africa, five people have heart attacks, and 10 people have strokes.
  • By 2030, premature deaths due to cardiovascular disease in people aged 35-64 are expected to increase by 41%.
  • Knowing what a normal resting heart rate is and how to check for it can help save your life.

In South Africa, more people - young and old - die of heart-related diseases than of all the cancers combined, according to the Heart & Stroke Foundation South Africa. In fact, around one in six deaths in SA is caused by conditions affecting the heart, known as cardiovascular diseases (CVD).

Heart disease and stroke are also our country’s biggest killers after HIV/AIDS. While 80% of premature deaths - under the age of 60 - can be prevented by living a healthy lifestyle, knowing what a normal heartbeat is (otherwise known as a pulse or heart rate) can also help detect arrhythmias. Arrhythmia is an irregular heartbeat that can be present without any symptoms.

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Medtronic, one of the world's largest medical technology companies, is sounding the call to early detection, which is the key to saving lives. 

Dr Iftikhar Ebrahim, an interventional cardiologist at Raslouw Hospital in Centurion, and Dr Kaveshree Govender, a cardiologist specialising in heart rhythm disorders and cardiac implantable electronic devices, have come together to provide insights and tips on early detection.

Detecting an abnormal heartbeat

One of the most common heart conditions that can be easily diagnosed is bradycardia, where the heart beats too slowly to maintain adequate functioning, says Peter Mehlape, managing director of Medtronic Southern Africa.

“Simply by paying attention to your heartbeat can reveal whether you need treatment, or the implantation of a pacemaker, a simple surgical procedure that can prevent early death and enable you to lead a full, normal life,” he says.

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A pacemaker is a small, battery-operated device implanted in your chest that corrects conduction abnormalities in the heart. It does so by sensing when your heart is beating too slowly and sending a signal to your heart that makes it beat at the correct pace.

Not all slow heartbeats require a pacemaker

Dr Ebrahim explains that there are degrees of bradycardia, and not everyone with a slow heart rate will require a pacemaker. 

He explains what a normal resting heart rate should be:

“The normal resting heart rate should be between 60-100 beats per minute. Anything below 60 beats per minute is considered slow, and I would advise anyone with a heart rate persistently below 50 to have their doctor check it and have an electrocardiogram.”

How to check for your heart rate

You can easily measure your heart rate by checking your pulse, using just your fingers - either at the wrist or at the side of your neck. Harvard Health explains:

  • At the wrist, lightly press your index and middle fingers on the opposite wrist, just below the base of the thumb.
  • At the neck, lightly press the side of the neck, just below your jawbone.
  • Then, count the number of beats in 15 seconds, and multiply that by four to calculate your beats per minute. That will be your heart rate.

What about a heart rate below 40 beats per minute?

A heart rate persistently below 40 beats per minute requires urgent attention, says Ebrahim, because it would indicate a heart block.  

He explains: “A third-degree heart block is the most common - and the most serious.  It occurs when there is almost no communication between the upper and lower chambers of the heart.  The heart cannot maintain blood flow to the brain, leading to dizziness and syncope (fainting).”

Another reason for a pacemaker

Another reason for a pacemaker is sinus node dysfunction, previously called sick sinus syndrome. It mostly affects older people.  

Ebrahim explains: “The sinus node is a collection of nerves in the top chamber that trigger the heart to beat faster or slower depending on activity, emotions, and other factors. Its function begins to wane and leads to symptomatic fainting.” 

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Slow heartbeats are normal in very fit, long-distance runners, but Ebrahim says they often develop sinus node dysfunction at an older age.

What to know if you need a pacemaker

Getting a pacemaker is a simple procedure that can lead to a full, productive life. Dr Govender says it can often be done at a day clinic with conscious sedation instead of full anaesthetic.

“Patients can continue with their normal lives after the operation, although they won’t be able to lift their left arm above shoulder height for six weeks – so swimming and golf would be out.  After that, though, they will have six-monthly check-ups but can expect and enjoy a normal, full life,” she says.

September is Heart Awareness Month and is dedicated to raising awareness about cardiovascular disease in South Africa, culminating with World Heart Day on 29 September.

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