The prognostic value of heart rate variability in the elderly, changing the perspective: from sympathovagal balance to chaos theory.

Paola Nicolini, Michele M. Ciulla, Carlo De Asmundis, Fabio Magrini, Pedro Brugada

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Heart rate variability (HRV) is the temporal beat-to-beat variation in successive RR intervals on an electrocardiographic (ECG) recording and it reflects the regulation of the heart rate (HR) by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). HRV analysis is a noninvasive tool for the assessment of autonomic function that gained momentum in the late 1980s when its clinical relevance as a predictor of mortality was established by a milestone study by Kleiger et al. in patients with postacute myocardial infarction. In the last few decades, the increasing availability of commercial ECG devices offering HRV analysis has made HRV a favorite marker for risk stratification in the setting of cardiovascular disease. The rapid aging of the world population and the growing popularity of HRV have also fueled interest for the prognostic value of HRV in the elderly, outside a specific cardiological context. However, the discussion of HRV measures in the elderly is still very much centered on the rather reductionistic model of sympathovagal balance, with the orthosympathetic and parasympathetic limbs of the ANS exercising opposing effects on the heart via autonomic tone. The expanding application of nonlinear dynamics to medicine has brought to the forefront the notion of system complexity, embedded in the mathematical concepts of chaos theory and fractals, and provides an opportunity to suggest a broader interpretation for the prognostic significance of HRV, especially in the elderly. Although the use of novel indices of HRV may be hampered by practical issues, a more holistic approach to HRV may still be safeguarded if traditional time- and frequency-domain measures are viewed in terms of autonomic modulation. This review focuses on HRV in geriatric populations. It considers studies on the prognostic value of HRV in elderly subjects, discussing the potential confounding effect of erratic rhythm, and concentrates on the conceptual distinction between autonomic tone and autonomic modulation. It also briefly addresses the question of the practicality of ECG recordings and identifies a promising area for future research in the effects of common noncardioactive drugs on HRV.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)622-638
Number of pages17
JournalPACE - Pacing and Clinical Electrophysiology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'The prognostic value of heart rate variability in the elderly, changing the perspective: from sympathovagal balance to chaos theory.'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this