Life After a Heart Attack: Don’t Fear Change
So, you’ve had a heart attack. You’ve survived it. And now you’re ready to take life by the horns, and make the most of your second chance. But should you be living so enthusiastically? Shouldn’t you be toning everything down, and taking things more steady? Well, only in part. Yes, you need to make changes to your diet. Yes, you’ll have more medication to think about. And yes, if you weren’t active before, you’ll need to be now.
But medicine is more advanced than it used to be, so a heart attack – while serious – isn’t as limiting as it once was. Your doctor and healthcare professionals will be able to give you the best knowledge when it comes to lifestyle changes, but here’s some top tips to help you stay healthy and happy in your post-heart attack life.
Take your medicine
This is easily the most important point, and one that your doctor will be able to advise you on best, in your follow up appointments. Whether you’re on beta-blockers, blood thinners, statins, or any other type of treatment, you’ll be given strict instructions on how and when to take them.
You might experience side effects, so it’s important to note them down, especially if they get worse. Always consult your doctor first if you’re worried about the medicine you’re taking. You should also make sure you understand what your medication is for. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with what doctors say, so if you’re worried that you won’t absorb all the information in a meeting, ask your doctor to write it down, or if you can have a trusted friend or family member present.
Go to your doctor
Similarly, don’t be afraid of going to your doctor. According to the American Heart Association, 20 percent of people over 45 who have a heart attack, will have another within five years. So, if you’re worried about your health or your medication, book an appointment as soon as you can.
Depending on the severity and cause of your heart attack will change how often you need to see your doctor. If the cause is found and can be treated, you may be in for a run of follow up appointments as a matter of safety. But if the cause can’t be found, or complications arise, you might need to see more than one doctor, and carry on going to the hospital for tests.
Here’s a great article to help you prepare for your appointments – as it often helps to know what you need to say and ask before getting to the clinic.
Change your diet
You’ve probably already been told that you need to change your diet. But it can’t be said too many times! By changing your diet, you could significantly reduce the risks of another heart attack. And if you’ve been diagnosed with a heart condition or heart disease, a healthy diet will keep you active for longer.
When it comes down to it, a diet that helps your heart isn’t complicated. Cut down on sugars, processed food and fats. Limit your alcohol intake, and ditch the cigarettes if you smoke. Boost your fruit and vegetable intake – try for at least five portions a day, though seven is best. Green vegetables like spinach and broccoli will help you get back to your old health. Wholegrain options are best when it comes to things like bread, pasta and rice, though these starchy foods are good for you. Stop snacking on sweets and pastries, and replace them with berries and nuts – these additional sources of protein are very good for you.
Unhealthy things should be avoided, but treats are ok in moderation. Try to keep to national drinking recommendations when it comes to alcohol – and swap your white wine for red.
Dairy is fine is small doses, as is meat. Try to eat more fish if possible – this is great for a healthy heart. And if you can, opt for foods with lower salt, fat or sugar content.
The British Heart Foundation has a good list of things to eat here, and the BBC offers a huge number of recipes to try, especially for heart health. I also wrote a post not that long ago about how to eat well to stay well – you can read it here.
Build up an exercise routine
Your doctor will be able to advise you on the best way to get back to physical fitness, depending on your individual situation. But, most advice will state that you can get back to your normal activities within a few weeks. If you were fit and healthy before the attack, you might find it easier – but be careful not to rush yourself. Don’t set your expectations too high: remember that your body has suffered a trauma, and you should let it recover at its own rate.
Start with simple exercises, like going for walks. Once you feel happy and not breathless, up the pace or up the distance – just maybe not at the same time! If your doctor recommends seeing a physio, you could discuss a more detailed plan with them.
Once you’re back to pre-attack fitness, it’s time to boost your exercising. The NHS recommends that you should do at least 150 minutes of exercise every week – and not just any exercise. It needs to be hard enough to make you a bit breathless at the end! If you don’t feel up to that, work up there gradually. Joining gym classes or finding a personal trainer might be a good idea, especially if you’re worried about motivation or keeping with an exercise plan.
Look after your mental health
A heart attack is a hugely traumatic event. And it will take time for you to come to terms with what it means, and how it will affect yours and your family’s lives. If you’re lucky, it means changing your lifestyle and taking medication. But if you suffered a big heart attack, it could mean losing your independence and completely relying on your family to support you.
Throughout all of this, it’s vital to take care of your mental health, as well as your physical health. If you feel slightly anxious or depressed, speak to your doctor at the earliest opportunity. Seeking specialist help, like with a psychologist or counsellor is nothing to be ashamed of, and it’ll help keep you healthy.
You could also look at joining support groups, or patient groups. There, you’ll be able to speak with people who understand what you’ve been through and the fears and worries you now have. And don’t block your family and friends out. Don’t feel guilty for being a ‘burden’ or taking up their time. They’re there to help you – so let them.
Take the right advice
Although it’s incredibly tempting, stay away from Google! If you’re worried about a symptom or side effect, get in touch with your doctor first. Don’t be afraid of causing a fuss if you think you need to go to hospital either.
However, sometimes you might think your doctor is letting you down. If this is the case, don’t suffer in silence. Ask to see a different doctor, or change clinics. And if you’ve been harmed by a doctor’s advice – escalate your complaint as high as it will go. You should be confident that your doctor is doing the best thing for you, so always seek a second opinion if you’re not sure. There have been cases where patients have raised a lawsuit over IVC filters – so regardless of how serious your complaint or your treatment was, you always have options to ensure you get the best possible care.
This is, of course, very rare and is unlikely to happen to you – but it’s worth knowing, just in case.
Know your body
Only you knows how you feel. So, pay attention to what your body is telling you. For example, if your stomach doesn’t agree with a certain medication, and you’ve given it a fair trial – don’t just sit back and take it. You shouldn’t feel constantly ill, and if you do, you should book a review with your doctor to see what’s going on.
But to help out in situations like this, make sure you know as much about your ‘normal’ self as possible. Keep track of your weight and your blood pressure, so you know what you should be careful of. Knowing your cholesterol and blood sugar levels can also be helpful, so you can use them as a guide when you’re feeling unwell.
You’ve been given a second chance in life, so don’t waste it. Take that trip you’ve been dreaming of. Buy that sports car. Enjoy early retirement. Move to by the beach. Heart attacks are serious, but they’re a great reminder that life is short, and no one knows how long they’ve got left on this planet. So, make that list of everything you want to achieve before it’s too late, and start ticking things off. Spend time with your family, friends and loved ones, and make sure they know exactly how you feel about them. When you had your heart attack, it probably gave them a wake up call too, to remind them to spend time with you and live life to its absolute fullest.