Why Does Heart Rate Increase at End of Life?

Why Does Heart Rate Increase at End of Life?
Your pulse and breathing may increase at the end of life


Heart rate, sometimes referred to as pulse rate, is the number of times a person’s heart beats per minute. It is measured by feeling the pulse in the wrist, neck, or chest. A normal resting heart rate for adults is 60-100 beats per minute.

At the end of life, an individual’s heart rate can increase significantly. This phenomenon has been observed in numerous studies, with some finding that the heart rate increases by up to 25-50 beats per minute when death is imminent. While this rise in heart rate can be alarming, it is a natural process that occurs as the body begins the transition into death.

This guide will explore why heart rate increases at the end of life. It will discuss the physiological, psychological, and social factors involved in this process, as well as other related topics, such as nutrition, medical treatment, and coping strategies.

Why is Heart Rate Increasing Before Death? Overview of Scientific Research

Heart rate is an important measure of our overall health and well-being. It provides valuable information about the functioning of our heart, lungs and circulation. In the final days of life, a person's heart rate will typically increase. This is a natural part of the dying process.

Research studies have identified a number of factors that can contribute to an increased heart rate at the end of life. These factors include physiological changes, psychological factors, social factors, diet, medical treatments and more. Let's take a closer look at each one.

Physiological Factors

The body undergoes many changes as life ends. Aging, illness, trauma and other factors can lead to a decrease in physical function. As a result, the body is less able to respond to physical demands. The weakened heart muscle may not be able to pump blood efficiently, leading to an increased heart rate.

Psychological Factors

It is well-known that stress and anxiety can cause an increase in heart rate. During the end-of-life period, a person may be dealing with fear, pain, depression and other emotional distress. This can result in an elevated heart rate.

Social Factors

The relationships and interactions that a person has at the end of life can also impact heart rate. A close bond with family and friends can provide comfort and support, while disconnection or isolation can increase levels of stress and anxiety.


Diet can play a role in heart rate. A lack of nutrients could lead to physical weakness, which can place additional strain on the heart. On the other hand, a balanced diet may be able to provide the body with the nourishment it needs to remain strong.

One of the most significant physical changes that occur in the body when life is coming to end is an increase in heart rate. The final days of life can often be filled with signs and symptoms that indicate the body is preparing to take its last breath. Understanding these signs can be helpful for family members and caretakers in making the most of the remaining time.

Physiological changes will start to happen in the body as death draws near. The heart rate increases significantly as a result of the body’s final response to dying. The heart rate will increase due to physical stress, and this can be caused by various conditions such as dehydration, infection, or medication. It can also be caused by something as simple as an increased need for oxygen, as the body has to work harder to get enough oxygen to sustain itself.

Another physical symptom that often comes before death is shallow breathing. As death approaches, the body becomes less able to process oxygen. This can lead to shallow breathing and even periods of no breathing at all. This can be distressing for family members, but it is important to note that this is a natural part of the dying process.

The body’s temperature will also decrease in the final weeks or days of life. As the body prepares for death, it works to conserve energy, and as a result, body temperature will drop. This can cause confusion or fear in the family, as it can seem like the person is cold-hearted. It is important to remember that this is a normal part of the dying process and it does not mean the person is in pain.

Finally, the skin may start to look a bit different as well. The skin will become pale and dry, and can start to feel colder to the touch. These changes occur because the body is no longer able to distribute blood in the same way.

Understanding the physical changes that are happening to the body as life ends can be extremely helpful for family members and caretakers. It is important to remember that these changes are normal and a natural part of the dying process, and it is important to support the person through this time with empathy and compassion.

The psychological factors that may contribute to an increased heart rate at the end of life are often the hardest to discuss. It can be difficult for families and loved ones to understand the impact of mental and emotional stress on someone's physical health in their final hours and days.

At the end of life, emotions such as pain, fear, anxiety, guilt, sadness, and grief can all spark an increase in heart rate. Not only can these emotions trigger a physical response in the body, but they can also affect breathing which in turn affects the heart rate.

The heart rate can also increase in response to a feeling of loneliness or detachment. Just like being with family and friends brings comfort and can soothe heart rate, the absence of such connections can lead to an increase.

The psychological factors that can cause an increased heart rate can be complex. There are often multiple factors at play, including a patient's age, past experiences, attitudes towards end of life, and prevailing beliefs. All of these have the potential to contribute to an increase in heart rate, and it is important to consider how best to respond to them.

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    In addition, it is important to consider how mental health conditions, such as depression, might affect someone's heart rate. Unmanaged depression is known to cause physical symptoms, and can in some cases raise heart rate. It is therefore important to address any underlying mental health issues if they arise.

    Ultimately, it is important to remember that an increased heart rate at the end of life is a normal and expected phenomenon. It is also important to ensure that all psychological factors are taken into account, and managed appropriately to ensure a person's comfort toward the end of life.

    The end of life can be a troubling time, not only for the individual, but for the people in their lives as well. Research has shown that social relationships and interactions can have a very profound effect on a person's heart rate at the end of life.

    When someone is preparing to die, those close to them may experience a range of emotions, such as fear, guilt, or sadness. These emotions can be incredibly draining and add to the stress of an already difficult situation. It can be hard for family and friends to know how best to support the person, leading to a feeling of helplessness and even anger.

    Studies have shown that when the person is surrounded by supportive people who can provide emotional comfort and reassurance, it can help to reduce their heart rate. On the other hand, when the person feels unsupported, isolated, or overwhelmed, their heart rate tends to increase.

    The presence of friends and family can also be beneficial in other ways. For example, having someone to talk to, to share stories with, or to simply sit with can help make the individual feel less alone. It can give them a sense of connection and reduce any feelings of isolation they may be experiencing. Likewise, having someone to provide physical comfort, such as holding hands, massaging their feet, or giving them a hug can help to soothe the pain and reduce heart rate.

    Social support can also be invaluable in helping to alleviate any anxiety the individual may be feeling. It can be comforting to know that someone is there to listen and provide understanding. This can help to take away some of the fear and uncertainty, thereby reducing their heart rate.

    Ultimately, social relationships and interactions can have a powerful influence on a person's heart rate at the end of life. By providing support and emotional comfort, those around them can help to ease their distress and make their last days more bearable.

    Have more questions? Check out the Frequently Asked Question section of the website. You will find a lot of different questions answered directly.

    Nutrition and Heart Rate at End of Life

    One’s diet plays an important role in determining their heart rate at the end of life. Nutrients provide the energy required to fuel the body’s functions, including its cardiovascular system. As some of these systems slow down, your diet will need to change to meet the body’s altered energy needs.

    Certain dietary changes can help keep your heart rate stable as end of life approaches. Eating more fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, and grains can help reduce inflammation and decrease levels of LDL cholesterol, both of which are associated with healthier heart health. Eating lean protein such as fish, poultry, eggs, and beans can also help support a healthy heart rate.

    It is also important to avoid unhealthy foods like processed and packaged snacks and food that is high in saturated fat. Additionally, limiting your salt intake can help your heart work more smoothly, and drinking plenty of water throughout the day can help your heart stay hydrated. Finally, avoiding alcohol and tobacco products that can cause the heart to beat faster.

    Some people may even find that their appetite decreases near the end of life. It is important to consult with your doctor or healthcare provider to decide which foods are best for you and your health during this time. Your healthcare provider can help create a plan tailored to your specific needs and ensure that your body is receiving the nutrients it needs.

    Medical Treatment for Heart Rate Increase at End of Life

    Heart rate is a vital sign that can provide insight into the health of an individual and can be managed with the help of medical treatments. At the end of life, some medical treatments can be used to manage the increased heart rate and ease the patient into a more peaceful state.

    The most common approach to managing heart rate is medication. Medications such as beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, and ACE inhibitors can all reduce the heart rate and reduce symptoms such as agitation and anxiety. If the medications do not work, then other treatments such as electrical cardioversion or pacemaker insertion may be recommended.

    Another treatment option is a procedure called thoracic sympathectomy. This involves cutting the nerve endings in the chest wall to reduce the amount of adrenaline released into the bloodstream. This in turn reduces the heart rate and can lead to a feeling of calmness.

    Finally, there are certain lifestyle changes that can be undertaken to help manage the increased heart rate. Regular exercise, relaxation techniques, and stress management can all be beneficial. Additionally, a balanced diet and avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and cigarettes can also help reduce the heart rate and improve overall health.

    Final Days

    As our bodies begin the process of dying, our hearts can start to experience an increase in rate. During the final days of life, changes in body temperature and heart rate may become more pronounced. Many people experience a noticeable spike in their heart rate during these last days.

    This increase in heart rate is thought to be one of the body's natural responses as it prepares to shut down. As a person approaches death, their circulation slows down, their metabolism decreases, and they may become increasingly fatigued. All of these factors can lead to a rapid heart rate change.

    The increased heart rate is usually accompanied by other signs such as labored breathing, irregular pulse, or feelings of restlessness. In some cases, a person's heart rate may even become erratic, with frequent spikes and dips.

    Some medical professionals believe that the increased heart rate is often a sign that death is near. Despite this, it is important to remember that each person is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to understanding end-of-life signs.

    It is also important to note that a rapid heart rate can indicate a number of conditions that are not life-threatening. It is best to consult with a medical professional for a proper diagnosis and individualized care plan.

    When Death is Imminent two nurses share their experiences

    Understanding Signals: How to Recognize When Death is Near

    Death is a part of life, and as we get closer to the end, our body and mind can start to give us signals that something is changing. One signal that is often seen at the end of life is an increase in heart rate; it can be scary or confusing to witness, but if you understand what is happening inside your loved one, it can help with the transition.

    When close to death, our bodies begin to change in ways that can’t be seen. The heart rate often increases, often faster than its normal pace. This is should not be considered a sign of distress or pain, but instead it is simply your body's way of dealing with the changes it is going through. There is no need to worry or panic; instead, it is best to stay calm and try to understand what is happening.

    It is important to remember that even though the heart rate is increasing, it does not always mean death is imminent. It could just be a natural response to the changes in the body as it nears the end of life. To be able to recognize when death is truly near, we need to pay attention to the other signs and signals.

    These signs can be physical, such as a decrease in appetite and energy. There can be psychological signals, such as confusion or disorientation. There may also be emotional signals, such as depression or withdrawal from activities and people they once enjoyed. Finally, there may be signs of spiritual distress, such as difficulty finding purpose in life.

    It is important to be aware of these different signals as they may indicate that death is drawing near. Keeping a calm and understanding presence will help the person in their time of transition. Knowing the signs and signals can bring peace to both the person and those who love them.

    Coping Strategies

    Facing the end of life can be intimidating and overwhelming. As the heart rate increases, it is normal to experience a range of emotions, including fear, uncertainty, and sadness. To help cope with the changes in heart rate, it is important to find ways to manage stress and boost emotional wellbeing.

    Relaxation Exercises

    Relaxation exercises are powerful techniques to reduce stress and promote relaxation. Some simple but effective options include deep breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation.

    • Deep breathing involves focusing on taking deep, slow breaths, which can help to calm the mind and body.
    • Through guided imagery, you can take your mind to a peaceful mental image to rest and relax.
    • Progressive muscle relaxation involves relaxing each muscle group starting from the feet up towards the head.


    Meditation is another great way to ease stress and calm the body and mind. It involves focusing the mind on something non-threatening and can bring greater awareness and clarity. Regular practice can help to reduce anxiety, improve concentration, and enhance overall wellbeing.

    Physical Activity

    Physical activity such as gentle stretching or gentle walking can also help to reduce stress and anxiety. Even a few minutes a day can make a positive difference.

    Support Networks

    Having a strong support network is important at any time, but particularly during times of difficulty. Talking openly about your thoughts and fears can make a big difference in how you're feeling. Reach out to supportive family, friends, counsellors, or members of your faith community.

    By using relaxation techniques, practicing meditation, engaging in physical activity, and having supportive networks, it is possible to manage stress and cope with the increase in heart rate during the end of life.


    When a person nears the end of life, their heart rate will often increase as their body enters its final stages. By understanding the physical, psychological, and social factors that contribute to this increase, it can help us to better prepare for end-of-life care and recognize when a loved one is close to death. There are also medical treatments and personal coping strategies available to help us manage the increase in heart rate before and during death.

    It is important to remain compassionate, patient, and understanding when caring for someone nearing the end of their life. With the right knowledge and support systems in place, we can facilitate a peaceful passing and ensure that our loved ones’ last moments are peaceful and comfortable.

    FAQ: Understanding Heart Rate Increase at End of Life

    What is the significance of hospice heart rate monitoring?

    Hospice care teams closely monitor heart rate as part of the vital signs assessment in patients who are nearing the end of life. Monitoring heart rate helps in managing comfort and identifying changes in the patient’s condition, guiding care interventions during the active dying phase.

    How long does actively dying last, and what changes occur in heart rate?

    The actively dying phase can last from a few days to a couple of weeks. During this time, changes in vital signs, including heart rate, are common. An increase in heart rate, known as tachycardia, can occur as the body’s systems gradually decline.

    Can you explain the term active dying heart rate?

    Active dying heart rate refers to the heart rate patterns observed in a person who is in the active phase of dying. This may include tachycardia or irregular heart rhythms as the body’s physiological functions begin to shut down.

    What does active end of life mean, and how is heart rate affected?

    Active end of life refers to the final phase of life where the body undergoes significant changes leading to death. During this phase, heart rate can increase due to decreased oxygenation and other physiological stressors on the body.

    Can you describe the end of life stages timeline with respect to vital signs?

    The end of life stages timeline includes several phases, starting from the terminal phase to active dying. Throughout these stages, vital signs such as heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate show progressive changes indicating the body's decline. Initially, there might be fluctuations, but as one approaches the final stages, vital signs often reveal a pattern of decline, including possible tachycardia or irregular rhythms.

    What is tachycardia at the end of life, and what causes it?

    Tachycardia at the end of life is a condition where the dying person experiences a heart rate above the normal range. It can be caused by a variety of factors, including pain, fever, dehydration, or the body’s decreasing ability to oxygenate the blood.

    How does blood pressure change in someone who is actively dying?

    In someone who is actively dying, blood pressure typically decreases as the body’s systems shut down. This decline is part of the natural process of the body slowing down and may occur alongside changes in other vital signs, including an increase in heart rate.

    What vital signs are monitored in a dying person, and why?

    The vital signs monitored in a dying person include heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and sometimes temperature. Monitoring these signs helps in assessing the person’s comfort levels, understanding the progression of their condition, and making necessary care adjustments.

    How does active dying differ from other stages of end-of-life care?

    Active dying specifically refers to the final days or hours of life when the body exhibits signs that it is shutting down. This phase is characterized by significant changes in vital signs, decreased responsiveness, and cessation of intake. It differs from earlier stages of end-of-life care, which may involve palliative treatments and symptom management while the individual is still somewhat active and communicative.

    How is hospice care tailored to someone who is actively dying?

    Hospice care for someone who is actively dying focuses on comfort, dignity, and symptom management rather than curative treatment. Care strategies are adjusted based on changes in vital signs, symptoms, and the needs and wishes of the patient and their family. This includes managing pain, breathing difficulties, and providing emotional and spiritual support.

    What indicates that active dying occurs in terms of heart rate and other signs?

    Active dying occurs with noticeable changes in heart rate, such as tachycardia or irregular rhythms, along with other signs like decreased blood pressure, changes in breathing patterns, reduced consciousness, and loss of reflexes. These indicators help healthcare providers and families recognize the transition to the final stage of life.

    What does it mean when an end-of-life heart rate reaches 120 bpm?
    When a person is approaching the end of life, their heart rate can significantly increase, sometimes reaching 120 beats per minute or more. This can be due to the heart working harder to compensate for a weakened body and failing organs.

    What are common symptoms 12 months before death?
    In the 12 months before death, especially in patients with advanced cancer or other terminal illnesses, symptoms might include increasing fatigue, weight loss, decreasing mobility, more frequent and severe pain, and changes in cognitive and emotional states.

    What are considered abnormal vital signs in the context of imminent death?
    Abnormal vital signs as death approaches can include significant changes in heart rate (either high or low), irregular breathing patterns, very high or low blood pressure, and changes in body temperature. These signs reflect the body's decreasing ability to regulate its systems.

    How does advanced cancer affect heart rate at the end of life?
    Patients with advanced cancer may experience an increased heart rate as a response to pain, stress, fever, or infections, which are common in weakened states. Additionally, cancer can directly or indirectly affect cardiovascular function.

    What should be expected when death is imminent?
    When death is imminent, the body gradually shuts down. Vital signs like heart rate and breathing become irregular. Patients may become unresponsive, and periods of apnea (when breathing stops for a while) can occur.

    How do hospice nurses manage increased heart rate at end of life?
    Hospice nurses are trained to provide comfort and symptom management. They might administer medications to manage pain and anxiety, which can help in stabilizing the heart rate. They also provide emotional support to both the patient and family, helping them understand and cope with the changes observed.

    How do pain medications affect the heart rate in end-of-life care?
    Pain medications, particularly opioids, can influence heart rate. While they generally slow down the heart rate by providing relief from pain and discomfort, in some patients, especially those with pre-existing heart conditions or specific reactions to medication, heart rate can fluctuate.

    What care considerations are important for cancer patients at the end of life with a heart rate of 120 bpm or higher?
    For cancer patients at the end of life with high heart rate, managing comfort becomes a priority. Medical interventions focus on providing adequate hydration, managing any reversible causes like infections, and ensuring that pain and anxiety are well controlled through appropriate medication.

    This FAQ addresses the complexities and nuances associated with the changes in heart rate seen in patients nearing the end of their lives, particularly in the context of advanced illnesses like cancer.

    Why does the heart rate increase at the end of life?

    An increase in heart rate at the end of life, particularly in conditions like advanced cancer, can be due to the body's decreased ability to regulate heart function as organs start to fail. Factors like medication, pain, and fever can also contribute to an elevated heart rate.

    What does it mean when a terminally ill patient has a heart rate of 150 or 130?

    A heart rate of 130-150 beats per minute is typically considered high (tachycardia) and can indicate stress on the body due to illness, pain, or other factors. In terminally ill patients, such as those with advanced cancer, it might suggest physiological stress or complications.

    How is care provided in acute palliative care units for terminally ill cancer patients?

    Acute palliative care units specialize in providing comfort and symptom management for terminally ill patients, including those with advanced cancer. The focus is on improving quality of life by managing symptoms such as pain, difficulty breathing, and heart rate abnormalities.

    What role does systolic blood pressure play in monitoring terminally ill patients?

    Systolic blood pressure is a critical vital sign in monitoring the overall cardiovascular health of terminally ill patients. Changes in systolic pressure can indicate alterations in cardiac function or the effect of medications.

    What are considered normal vital signs, and how do they change in advanced cancer patients?

    Normal vital signs vary widely, but typically include a heart rate of 60-100 beats per minute, blood pressure within the range of 90/60 mmHg to 120/80 mmHg, and a respiratory rate of 12-20 breaths per minute. In advanced cancer patients, these signs may fluctuate significantly due to the progression of the disease and the body's response to it.

    Why might an advanced cancer patient admitted to an acute palliative care unit experience changes in heart rate?

    Advanced cancer patients admitted to acute palliative care units often experience changes in heart rate due to a combination of disease progression, side effects of treatment, stress, and the body's diminishing capacity to maintain normal physiological functions.

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