Heart rate variability and psychosocial symptoms in adolescents and young adults with cancer

PLoS One. 2021 Nov 4;16(11):e0259385. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0259385. eCollection 2021.


Background: Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a valid, scalable biomarker of stress. We aimed to examine associations between HRV and psychosocial outcomes in adolescents and young adults (AYAs) with cancer.

Methods: This was a secondary analysis of baseline data from a randomized trial testing a resilience intervention in AYAs with cancer. Two widely used HRV metrics, the standard deviation of normal to normal beats (SDNN) and root mean square of successive differences (RMSSD), were derived from electrocardiograms. Patient-reported outcome (PRO) survey measures included quality of life, anxiety, depression, distress, and resilience. Linear regression models were used to test associations between HRV and PRO scores. The Wilcoxon rank sum test was used to test differences in median HRV values among participant subgroups.

Results: Among the n = 76 patients with available electrocardiograms, the mean age was 16 years (SD 3y), 63% were white, and leukemia/lymphoma was the most common diagnosis. Compared to healthy adolescents, AYAs with cancer had lower median HRV (SDNN [Females: 31.9 (12.8-50.7) vs 66.4 (46.0-86.8), p<0.01; Males: 29.9 (11.5-47.9) vs 63.2 (48.4-84.6), p<0.01]; RMSSD [Females: 28.2 (11.1-45.5) vs 69.0 (49.1-99.6), p<0.01; Males: 27.9 (8.6-48.6) vs 58.7 (44.8-88.2), p<0.01]). There was no statistically significant association between PRO measures and SDNN or RMSSD in either an unadjusted or adjusted linear regression models.

Conclusion: In this secondary analysis, we did not find an association between HRV and psychosocial PROs among AYAs with cancer. HRV measures were lower than for healthy adolescents. Larger prospective studies in AYA biopsychosocial research are needed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anxiety / etiology
  • Anxiety / physiopathology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Depression / etiology
  • Depression / physiopathology*
  • Electrocardiography
  • Female
  • Heart Rate
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Patient Reported Outcome Measures
  • Prospective Studies
  • Psychological Distress
  • Quality of Life / psychology*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Research Design
  • Resilience, Psychological
  • Young Adult