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Thriving After a Heart Attack

If you've had a heart attack, you're probably wondering how your life is going to change.

Over the long term, your quality of life is tied to how severe your heart attack was and how it was treated. Beyond that, any change will depend largely on you. If you make it happen, your life can be healthier and more active than before. Work with your doctor on a plan.

Recovery and prevention

The first step is to work with your doctor to find the cause of your heart attack and to discuss measures to reduce the risk of another heart attack.

After a first heart attack, the risk of another heart attack increases two- or three-fold. That doesn't mean, though, that the second heart attack has to happen. There are five strategies you and your doctor can use to make your life healthy:

  • Stop smoking.

  • Change your diet.

  • Become more physically active.

  • Undergo angioplasty or surgery.

  • Take your medicine.

You may need surgery to fix damage to heart muscle or angioplasty or surgery on the blood vessels that put you at risk. But surgery by itself is never enough, as lifestyle changes are also necessary.

Make healthy choices

How can you move toward a healthier lifestyle?

If you smoke, ask your doctor about programs that help you stop.

Exercise strengthens your heart muscle so it can pump blood more easily and strengthens other muscles so the heart doesn't have to work so hard. It can help you lose weight, lower your blood pressure, decreases stress, decrease your cholesterol levels, and reduce the risk of dying from another heart attack. A routine that focuses on aerobic exercise for 30 minutes a day at least three days a week should be your minimum goal. Aerobic exercise—the type that raises your heart rate—can be as easy as a brisk, 30-minute walk. Start slowly and follow your doctor or rehabilitation specialist's advice.

Arthritis or other problems may make some exercises challenging. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be active. Your doctor or a rehabilitation expert can help.

If walking is too painful, try a workout that doesn't stress the joints. Ride a stationary bike, for instance, or swim. Talk with your doctor about the safest way to start.

Diet changes can help lower your cholesterol level, weight, and blood pressure. Avoid high-fat foods and shift to a leaner diet higher in fiber and possibly lower in salt. That means more fruits and vegetables, fewer eggs, and less butter and red meat. A dietitian can help you spot and change unhealthy eating patterns.

Don't be afraid of having sex after a heart attack. As with other activity, you may have to start slowly and gradually work into your normal habits. Some of the medications you may take after a heart attack can affect your interest in sex or the ability to have an erection or orgasm. Talk to your doctor about when you can begin to have sex or if you think medications may be causing problems.

After a heart attack, medicine is important for lowering cholesterol and controlling blood pressure. Make sure you understand when and how to take your medicine, and take it as instructed. Talk with your doctor if the medicine causes problems for you. Don't change or stop medication use on your own. Stopping suddenly can be dangerous with some medicines.

If stress is a factor in your life, it can increase your blood pressure, increase your heart rate, and make your heart disease worse. If you are under stress from work or home, get advice on stress reduction techniques or see a counselor for suggestions on how you can reduce your stress or change your response to stressful situations.

Why rehab programs matter

Cardiac rehabilitation programs aim to help people who have had a heart attack make the changes they need for a healthy lifestyle. In a rehab program, health professionals will work with you to show you how to watch your blood pressure, help you stop smoking, alter your diet, and set up an exercise routine.

The goal of rehab is to form habits that will make and keep you healthy. If your doctor hasn't talked with you about a cardiac rehabilitation program, you should ask about it.

Recovering from a heart attack means changing your life in positive ways—not smoking, lowering cholesterol, controlling blood pressure, staying active, and forming partnerships with health professionals. Those steps don't just reduce your risk and fear of another heart attack. They also make life healthier and more fun.

The role of family

Family members can help a heart-attack patient recover and live a healthy life.

Husbands and wives can exercise together, for instance, and a spouse can provide support and encouragement.

The family can also help by joining recovering kin in a healthy diet, encouraging them to complete a rehab program or quit smoking, and reminding them to take medication.

Family members can also watch a person's mood and mental well-being. Depression is common after a heart attack. If it doesn't start to ease within a few weeks, it can hinder recovery and cause the person to avoid vital, positive steps. Relatives should encourage efforts to get help and call the health care provider right away.

Family members can also occasionally hamper recovery. For instance, if a family member smokes, it may make smoking cessation more challenging for the person who has had a heart attack. Other lifestyle habits that contribute to a heart attack, such as lack of exercise and a high-fat diet, can be family patterns.