A woman's chance of dying from a heart attack rises 18 per cent for every 10 beat per minute increase in her resting heart rate up to the age of 70, suggests research published ahead of print in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
But regular exercise can minimise the impact of a higher resting heart rate - a reliable indicator of overall cardiovascular health - the study shows.
The Norwegian authors base their findings on just under 50,000 healthy adults, aged 20 and above, whose cardiovascular health was tracked for an average of 18 years between 1984-6 up to the end of 2004.
At the start of the study, information was collected on their general health and lifestyle, including the frequency and intensity of exercise they took.
Factors known to influence cardiovascular disease, including resting heart rate - by taking the pulse - were also measured.
During the monitoring period, 6033 men and 4442 women died. Heart attacks and stroke accounted for more than 58% of the deaths among the men and more than 41% of those among women.
The higher the resting heart rate, the greater was the risk of a cardiovascular disease death, particularly from ischaemic heart disease (heart attacks and angina).
Men whose rate was 101 bpm or more were 73% more likely to die of ischaemic heart disease as those whose rate was 61 to 72 bpm, considered to be in the normal healthy range.
Women whose resting heart rate was101 bpm were 42% more likely to die, and the effects were particularly noticeable for those younger than 70: they were more than twice as likely to die of a heart attack.
Women who reported higher levels of physical activity had a lower risk of dying from ischaemic heart disease, irrespective of their resting heart rate.
Physically inactive women with a resting heart rate of 88 or more beats a minute were more than twice as likely to die of a heart attack. But those with this heart rate who exercised frequently and intensively were only 37% more likely to do so.
No such pattern was evident among men.