Changes in heart rate variability with age

Pacing Clin Electrophysiol. 1996 Nov;19(11 Pt 2):1863-6. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-8159.1996.tb03241.x.


Depressed heart rate variability (HRV) after a myocardial infarction is associated with increased mortality. This is thought to be due to reduced parasympathetic activity and heightened sympathetic activity. Aging is associated with depressed HRV, but little is known of the affect of aging on parasympathetic activity. This study examined 56 healthy subjects (age range 40-102 years; 39 women). None had a history of heart disease or were on medication that would affect cardiac function. All had normal resting ECGs, normal heart size on chest X ray, and normal electrolytes. In all subjects, 24-hour Holter recordings were performed and used to measure HRV. In particular, the study examined the affect of age on HRV triangular index, which gives an estimate of overall HRV, and on RMSSD (square root of the mean squared differences of successive normal-to-normal RR intervals), which gives an estimate of short-term components of HRV and is thought to reflect the overall extent of vagal modulations of heart rates. Both these parameters were compared in patients younger and older than 70 years. Each recording lasted at least 17 hours; the majority of recordings were longer than 20 hours. There was a significant decrease in HRV triangular index with age (r = -0.4, P < 0.05) and no significant change in RMSSD with age(r = -0.08, P = NS). There was a significant difference in HRV index in those > 70 years compared with those < 70 years (38.0 +/- 9.3 vs 31.0 +/- 11, respectively, P < 0.02). There was no significant difference in RMSSD between the two age groups (26.7 +/- 8.2 ms vs 28.4 +/- 11.3 ms, respectively, P = NS). Thus, the study concludes that aging reduces the global measure of HRV and may reflect reduced responsiveness of autonomic activity to external environmental stimuli with age. However, the time-domain short-term components of HRV are not affected by age and, therefore, the fast and presumably vagal modulations of heart rate appear to be maintained.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology
  • Electrocardiography
  • Electrocardiography, Ambulatory
  • Electrolytes / blood
  • Environment
  • Female
  • Heart / anatomy & histology
  • Heart / diagnostic imaging
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Myocardial Infarction / physiopathology
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Radiography
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology


  • Electrolytes