It doesn’t take much technical equipment or expertise to measure your pulse. But this simple vital sign is proving to be an important source of information about heart health and risk of an early death.

In a 2010 study that tracked middle-aged adults for an average of 12 years, women with a resting heart rate above 90 beats per minute were three times more likely to die of heart disease during the study than those with a rate below 60 beats a minute. Men with rates above 90 were twice as likely to die of heart disease.

Some medical texts continue to say that the normal range for resting heart rate extends from 60 to 100 beats per minute. But that’s misleading. Many recent studies make clear that it’s increasingly unhealthy to have a resting rate above 60 beats per minute. The risks of dying from heart disease rise steeply at rates above about 70 beats per minute. Among highly trained athletes, it’s not unusual to have a resting rate around 40 beats per minute. Higher rates are an indicator of lower physical fitness. But researchers have also found that a higher resting heart rate is independently associated with arterial stiffness, a feature of atherosclerosis. Test yourself: Sit quietly for five minutes. Use your fingertips to find a pulse at your wrist or throat. Count the number of beats in 30 seconds and multiply by two. If your rate is above 75, consider talking to a medical caregiver about whether you need to make changes to lower your heart attack risk. You might want to do so if your resting rate is above 60.

Joe Rojas-Burke 
The Oregonian, Portland,Ore.