Next Steps After a Heart-Related Health Scare

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A heart-related health scare can really throw you for a loop, physically and emotionally. You’re bound to feel a little fragile and uncertain.

Don’t despair. You can improve your long-term prospects for better health and well-being by taking charge and not giving up.

Take all your medications appropriately.

After you have a heart attack, have a stent put into any of your arteries, or undergo another type of heart surgery or procedure, you will receive a list of medications to take to help you recover and to prevent future episodes. If you’re uncertain about how to take your medications—or if they might interact with any other meds you’re taking—ask your doctor for guidance.

The specific medications may vary, based on your overall health and the incident that landed you in the hospital, but could include some of the following:

  • Anti-platelet medication to prevent clots from forming and blocking your arteries.

  • Beta blocker to slow your heart rate.

  • Nitrates, like nitroglycerin pills, to reduce chest pain and to dilate your coronary blood vessels to allow greater blood flow to your heart.

  • Statin to reduce your cholesterol levels.

  • ACE inhibitor to prevent your blood vessels from narrowing and to lower your blood pressure.

Your doctor may also strongly recommend embracing daily low-dose aspirin therapy. One baby aspirin per day reduces the likelihood you’ll have another heart attack or cardiac event.

Enroll in cardiac rehab.

If you suffered a heart attack or underwent some type of heart surgery or procedure, your cardiologist will probably recommend starting your recovery by participating in a cardiac rehab program. Cardiac rehab is designed to put you on the right path forward. You can get stronger under the supervision of trained professionals who understand your health history and can guide you toward better health.

But it’s not just about exercise. Cardiac rehab programs do include physical activity that is tailored specifically to you and your needs, but education, support and counseling are equally important components. You’ll also learn how to reduce any risk factors that you have.

Stop smoking.

Speaking of risk factors, if you smoke, it is past time to quit. The chemicals in the smoke damage your blood cells and blood vessels, increasing your risk of developing atherosclerosis, a condition in which plaque builds up in your arteries, making it harder for oxygen-rich blood to flow to your heart. If you suffer from other chronic conditions, like high blood pressure, smoking raises your risk of heart disease even more.

In general, a smoker has a life expectancy that’s ten years shorter than that of a nonsmoker, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in case you need a more specific incentive, consider this warning from the American Heart Association:  you are much more likely to die prematurely from coronary heart disease if you smoke.

Eat a heart-healthy diet.

What you put on your plate can make a big difference in your recovery. A heart-healthy diet is low on sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat and heavy on the fruits, veggies and whole grains. Your doctor may advise you go to easy on the red meat and added sugars, too. Eating a healthy diet—with appropriate portion sizes—can help you maintain a healthy weight, which is also good for your heart. For more specific guidance, you might want to investigate the DASH diet. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, and it was developed to help people control their blood pressure without additional medication.

Build up your physical strength.

Time to hit the gym—or at least, it’s time to start moving more. You’re not trying to become an elite athlete or a bodybuilder. You’re just working to build up your strength and endurance. The American Heart Association suggests trying aerobic activities that move both your legs and your arms, so you might consider walking, swimming, cycling, or dancing.

It’s important to set yourself up for success by not trying to do too much too soon. Start slow and work your way up to more vigorous exercise. And of course, don’t start an exercise routine without discussing it with your doctor first.

Pay attention to your mental health.

Depression after a heart attack is far more common than you might realize. Sadness, fatigue, the desire to withdraw from your favorite activities, negative thoughts—these are all signs of depression. You don’t have to resign yourself to feeling this way—and you shouldn’t. According to the Cleveland Clinic, depression can increase the chances of having another adverse cardiac event.

It’s also very natural to experience anxiety after a heart episode. You might find yourself reliving the incident, or your mind may feel crowded by anxious thoughts that you can’t quite shake. Unfortunately, anxiety can exacerbate any existing strain on your heart, so it’s important to acknowledge that you may need help. Tell your doctor about your feelings and ask about getting assessed for depression and anxiety so you can explore possible treatment options.

As you recover, be sure not to miss any of your follow-up appointments with your doctor. If anything seems wrong or off, speak up! It’s possible that your doctor may want to alter some of your strategies or chart out a slightly different course of treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 May 1

  1. The American Heart Association's Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations. American Heart Association.

  2. Anxiety and Heart Disease. Johns Hopkins Medicine.

  3. Aroesty JM and Kannam JP. Patient information: Heart attack recovery (Beyond the Basics). UpToDate.

  4. Depression After A Cardiac Event or Diagnosis. American Heart Association.

  5. Depression and Heart Disease. Cleveland Clinic.

  6. Don’t skip cardiac rehab after a heart event. Harvard Health Letter. Harvard Medical School.

  7. How Does Smoking Affect the Heart and Blood Vessels? National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

  8. Taking Care of Yourself. American Heart Association.

  9. Tobacco-Related Mortality. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  10. What is Cardiac Rehabilitation? American Heart Association.

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