Surviving a heart attack is often a life-changing event. In addition to recovering from any procedures that were performed to stop and treat the heart attack, most patients will also face making sometimes extensive lifestyle changes. These lifestyle changes are designed to target risk factors for heart disease and stop or slow the progress of disease. While making lifestyle changes is never easy, doing so after a heart attack is an important part of looking toward the future. Read below for common lifestyle changes and how you can get support in making them.
Cigarette smoking is a primary risk factor for cardiovascular disease, so quitting is one of the most important things you can do for your heart health. After you quit, your risk of a heart attack drops sharply after just one year. If you smoke and wish to quit, your physician and other qualified medical professionals and support groups can help you, even if you have tried in the past without success.
Blood Pressure Management
High blood pressure (hypertension) is a very common cardiovascular condition in the United States, affecting approximately one out of three U.S. adults. High blood pressure damages the artery walls and heart muscle over time. Damaged arteries are more likely to accumulate heart-attack causing plaques (deposits of a fatty substance in the artery wall). Managing your blood pressure through a combination of medication, diet and exercise will help prevent a recurrent heart attack. Speak with your physician about a long-term plan to lower your blood pressure if it is high.
Eating a nutritious diet can help keep cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose, and body weight within healthy ranges, reducing risk for cardiovascular disease and slowing the progression if you already have it. Your physician can help you identify how to adopt a more heart-healthy diet, as well as refer you to a nutritionist or other qualified medical professional to give you ongoing, detailed support.
Physical activity (at whatever level you are able and as advised by a physician) will be a key part of managing long-term heart health after a heart attack. Enrolling in a cardiac rehabilitation program at your hospital is an important first step you can take toward resuming physical activity. Research studies have shown that patients who complete cardiac rehabilitation are more likely to be alive and well in five years compared to those who do not complete a program. After you have completed cardiac rehabilitation, keep your physician advised on any changes in exercise level. He or she will also discuss with you any restrictions on physical activity that you have after a heart attack.
You may not immediately think of taking medication as a lifestyle change, but beginning a medication regimen or adding to your existing one can take some adjustment. Taking your medication exactly as prescribed is vital for doing everything you can to prevent a recurrent heart attack. If you anticipate any problems with taking your prescribed medications – ranging from forgetfulness to financial cost – speak with your physician. He or she may have suggestions for how you can resolve your medication problems or refer you to a counselor with expertise in addressing the problem. Never stop taking your medication without first speaking with your physician; doing so can be dangerous. Additionally, be sure to discuss any side effects from the medication with your physician.
If you have diabetes, managing it appropriately will be central to reducing your risk for a recurrent heart attack or for other cardiovascular events. Appropriately monitoring your A1C level is one vital part of managing diabetes. An A1C test gives your doctor important insight into your blood glucose levels over the previous two to three months. It's a good idea to check your A1C level twice a year. For most people who have diabetes, the goal is an A1C of less than 7 percent. Working with an endocrinologist may help you in getting the best mix of good eating, activity, medications and weight loss to manage this disease. Your physician can advise you as to what your A1C level should be and can refer you to an endocrinologist.
If you have Impaired Fasting Glucose (IFG) – formerly called pre-diabetes – you should also carefully manage that risk factor. IFG is when blood glucose levels are elevated, but lower than criteria for type 2 diabetes. Some people with IFG go on to develop diabetes. This condition is usually managed with diet, physical activity and weight loss.
High levels of LDL cholesterol – the so-called “bad cholesterol” (you can think of it as “LDL is lousy”) – can increase the build-up of plaque in the arteries of the heart. It's also unhealthy to have low levels of HDL, or "good," cholesterol (“HDL is healthy”). The ideal blood cholesterol level for you depends on your age, gender, and history of heart disease. For those with known coronary artery disease or who have had a heart attack, the LDL goal should be below 70 mg/dL. Your physician can help you manage your cholesterol levels through diet, physical activity and medications.
You may not be aware of the toll stress can take on your cardiovascular system. It appears to be a risk factor for heart disease and can also trigger a heart attack. Managing your stress level can help safeguard your heart health. If you find you have trouble managing your stress level, a psychotherapist or other qualified medical professional can help you identify “stress busters” that work for you.
Reassuring Loved Ones
After a heart attack, you may find yourself dealing for the first time with well-meaning but overprotective friends and family. Navigating their concerns in addition to your own – while still striving for a future that offers you the best possible quality of life – can be stressful. Ask your treating physician and the medical professionals in your cardiac rehabilitation program for detailed information about which activities are safe for you and when. The clearer the information you can offer your loved ones, the more likely they will be to accept that you are following recommendations for a strong recovery. On the other hand, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to not overdo things or rush your recovery, but instead to carefully follow the instructions given to you by your physician.
Planning for the Future
While making lifestyle changes can be hard, the rewards are well worth it. You are planning for a future that you will not only be around for, but that you will get to enjoy with the best possible quality of life. Set incremental goals on your path to reducing lifestyle-based risk factors. Choose SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-Oriented) goals to change your diet and to become more physically active. Medical professionals are available who can help you determine appropriate dietary changes and exercise levels. Additionally, if you find that depression – a commonly experienced condition after a heart attack – is diminishing your ability to focus on the future, do not be embarrassed to seek mental health counseling.