Clinical Science

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Research article

Influence of age, the autonomic nervous system and anxiety on QT-interval variability

Gianfranco PICCIRILLO, Mauro CACCIAFESTA, Marco LIONETTI, Marialuce NOCCO, Vincenza DI GIUSEPPE, Antonio MOISÈ, Camilla NASO, Vincenzo MARIGLIANO


As QT variability increases and heart rate variability diminishes, the QT variability index (QTVI)-a non-invasive measure of beat-to-beat fluctuations in QT interval on a single ECG lead-shows a trend towards positive values. Increased QT variability is a risk factor for sudden death. Aging lengthens the QT interval and reduces RR-interval variability. In the present study we investigated the influence of aging and the autonomic nervous system on QT-interval variability in healthy subjects. We studied 143healthy subjects, and divided them into two age ranges (younger and older than 65 years). For each subject we measured two QTVIs: from the q wave to the end of the T wave (QTeVI) and to the apex of the T wave (QTaVI). Both indexes were calculated at baseline and after sympathetic stress. In 10 non-elderly subjects, both QTVIs were determined after β-adrenoreceptor blockade induced by intravenous infusion of propranolol or sotalol. The QTVI was higher in elderly than in younger subjects (P < 0.001). QTVIs obtained during sympathetic stress remained unchanged in the elderly, but became more negative in the younger group (P < 0.05). QTeVI and QTaVI at baseline were correlated positively with age (P < 0.01) and anxiety scores (P < 0.05), but inversely with the low-frequency spectral power of RR-interval variability (P < 0.001). QTVIs were higher in subjects with higher anxiety scores. In younger subjects, sotalol infusion increased both QTVIs significantly, whereas propranolol infusion did not. In conclusion, aging increases QT-interval variability. Whether this change is associated with an increased risk of sudden death remains unclear. The association of abnormal QT-interval variability with anxiety and with reduced low-frequency spectral power of heart rate variability merits specific investigation. In healthy non-elderly subjects, acute sympathetic stress (tilt) decreases the QTVI. β-Adrenoreceptor blockade inhibits this negative trend, thus showing its sympathetic origin. Because a negative trend in QTVI induced by sympathetic stress increases only in younger subjects, it could represent a protective mechanism that is lost with aging.

  • aging
  • anxiety
  • autonomic nervous system
  • spectrum analysis
  • QT