After surviving a heart attack, you’re probably sure of one thing: You don’t want another one.
Yet, about one in five people who have had a heart attack will be readmitted to the hospital for a second one within five years. Each year, there are an estimated 335,000 recurrent heart attacks in the United States.
A heart attack is damaged or dying heart muscle caused by a blockage of the blood supply to that area.
“To help keep it from happening again, pay attention to treatment and prevention measures right away,” said Nieca Goldberg, medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center.
“Really be proactive,” she said. “The right actions can also help you return to regular activities more quickly and set a course for a healthier future.”
Take your medicine, see your doctor
A healthy diet, physical activity and a number of other measures can help you lower your risk for a second heart attack.
“After a heart attack, your physician will likely prescribe medicines such as aspirin, a beta blocker, statin therapy and perhaps other drugs to ensure heart muscle function,” said Goldberg.
It’s important to take medications as prescribed. Many drugs for heart patients are now available in generic form, which reduces costs.
Be sure to go to regular medical appointments and have key risk factors such as blood pressure monitored by your cardiologist. “Call your doctor if a symptom, even a mild one, occurs then goes away. It may signal a risk for a recurrence,” Goldberg comments.
Common heart attack symptoms include the feeling that a rope is squeezing around the chest or an elephant is sitting on the chest. The pressure may also be lower than the center of the chest and be mistaken for acid reflux. You might break out in a cold sweat or feel faint.
Symptoms can be different for men and women. Women may have non-chest pain symptoms such as nausea, shortness of breath or extreme exhaustion — “as though you ran a marathon and can’t move,” Goldberg said.
If heart attack symptoms appear, call 911 and don’t drive yourself to the hospital. Medical personnel can administer cardiac life support immediately.
“Time is heart muscle,” warns Goldberg, adding, “With medical procedures, we can save heart muscle.”
Cardiac rehab and resuming your life
Cardiac rehabilitation can be key in recovering from a heart attack by improving strength, stamina and heart health. All that, in turn, can help you return to everyday activities, including work. It also may help prevent a recurrence.
Health expenditures and lost productivity are part of the total $329.7 billion in estimated direct and indirect costs of cardiovascular diseases and stroke. Heart attacks, at a total cost of $12.1 billion, are among the 10 most expensive conditions treated in U.S. hospitals (as of 2012).
Cardiac rehab is an outpatient program that uses medically supervised exercise — usually an average of three times per week for three months. It also includes nutrition counseling and risk management to help you maintain a healthy weight or quit smoking.
One study found that cardiac rehab helped reduce chances of a repeat heart attack by 47 percent. Another found patients who participated in cardiac rehab were 42 percent less likely to die within an average of eight years.
Embark on a healthy lifestyle
“Cardiac rehab is the start of a lifelong healthy living journey,” stated Goldberg. “Use it to establish a plan for being physically active.”
Research has found that any physical activity after a heart attack can be helpful, but the goal should be regular physical activity. It can be scary to start exercising outside of a supervised setting, but it could help keep you alive.
Taking a close look at your diet and changing it, if needed, can also keep you healthy and help prevent a second heart attack.
“Consider an eating plan such as the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruits and vegetables and little red meat. It has many similarities to the American Heart Association’s diet and lifestyle recommendations,”said Goldberg.
The DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, also incorporates AHA recommendations: a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes, low-fat dairy products and non-tropical oils. Try to limit saturated fat, sodium, red meat and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Find a support system
Surviving a heart attack can bring about the feeling that you’re alone, but remember that you’re not.
“When you have a heart attack, it’s a stressful, life-changing experience,” Goldberg said, adding, “isolation can be a marker for a recurrent heart attack and death.”
Rely on family, friends or your place of worship for emotional support. Reach out to your support network or seek professional help if you are feeling depressed.
Returning to work, if you’re able, also may help combat post-heart attack depression, one study found.
Through your recovery, you may find surprising new energy to create a healthy future. It can be a springboard for preventing another heart attack and for changing your life.
Download our checklist on “Healthy Steps to Take After a Heart Attack” to keep yourself on track mentally, physically and financially after experiencing a heart attack.
Things to Consider:
- Work with your doctor to determine whether cardiac rehabilitation is available to you after a heart attack.
- Start a healthier eating plan that emphasizes more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein.
- Find a social support network of family, friends and other heart disease survivors who can help you after a heart attack.
This article was prepared by the American Heart Association (AHA). Transamerica is not affiliated with the AHA and does not control, guarantee or endorse the information. This information does not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always talk to your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified healthcare professional immediately. If you are in the United States and experiencing a medical emergency, call 911, or call for emergency medical help immediately.