Surviving a Heart Attack is Lifelong Process, Heart Doctors Say

This article was reviewed by our Baystate Health team to ensure medical accuracy.

Quinn R. Pack, MD Quinn R. Pack, MD View Profile
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Feeling sad, anxious or depressed after having a heart attack or heart surgery is normal; so is worrying that you might have another heart attack.

It’s a fact that 90% of people survive a heart attack, and according to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, survival rates 1 year after open heart surgery are 96-97%.

That’s good news for patients. But that doesn’t mean they can go back to their normal ways as before without some healthy lifestyle changes.

“Back in the 1950s, 4-6 weeks of bed rest was recommended for heart attack patients. Soon after, contrary evidence was presented that getting a patient out of bed to walk and exercise right away offered better outcomes. Now that advice applies to not only heart attack patients, but for those who have undergone heart surgery and even others with heart failure,” says Dr. Quinn Pack, preventive cardiologist in the Heart & Vascular Program at Baystate Health.

Pillar of Recovery

“Cardiac rehabilitation programs, such as those offered at Baystate Health, are the pillar of recovery and are critical to regaining function and optimal health, as well as reducing the risk of another heart attack or other cardiovascular problems,” he adds.

While he noted some people may be nervous about resuming exercise or activity after having a life-changing cardiovascular event, cardiac rehabilitation exercise is held in a medically safe environment where heart attack, surgical, and congestive heart failure patients, under close supervision of cardiac health professionals, can discover what their limitations are and what they can do to alleviate their fears.

“Getting started on a walking program right after hospital discharge is a good first step,” says Dr. Pack.

Get Out of Bed

Start slow, but be sure to actually get moving as too much bedrest is harmful. When not in cardiac rehab, patients are encouraged to exercise at home, with the goal to get 150 minutes of exercise each week and 7,000 steps each day.

Survival is a lifelong process, notes Dr. Pack.

“I once had a patient who was hospitalized after his second heart attack. After his first heart attack and bypass surgery, he thought he was ‘fixed’ and so did nothing else for his own health, including taking recommended mediations. Unfortunately, his bypass surgery only lasted 3 years, when it should have lasted 10-15 years. Coronary disease is a chronic illness and requires continuous attention throughout your life,” says Dr. Pack.

“You will need to partner with your physician and listen carefully to advice given. Many of your risk factors will need to be addressed to improve your heart health after a heart attack or heart surgery. We have good treatments and medications to manage almost all of these risk factors and improve your quality of life,” says Dr. Pack, further noting “it’s all about lifestyle changes.”

Take Your Medications

The Baystate cardiologist noted your doctor may prescribe statin medications to lower your cholesterol and others to control high blood pressure and diabetes if you have high sugars, recommend that you work with a dietitian to eat healthier, quit smoking, lose weight if obese, and offer advice to manage your stress, which can lead to high blood pressure and increase your risk for another heart attack or even a stroke.

For smokers, Dr. Pack said he is “a big fan of addressing this bad habit “first” and that “it’s never too late to quit smoking” because research has shown that quitting smoking can cut the risk of repeat heart attacks and death from heart disease by about half. It’s the most important and powerful behavior change I know of to prevent heart disease.”

There are many medications and online tools now to help smokers quit.

The Key to Quitting

“The goal is total cessation. Although promoted as a quitting agent, e-cigarettes as a bridge to quitting smoking has so far been mostly unsuccessful. Also, e-cigarettes have been linked to thousands of cases of serious lung injury. The CDC recommends that people not use e-cigarettes,” says Dr. Pack.

And, not smoking also applies to marijuana.

“One joint is equivalent to inhaling the smoke from one cigarette. While one won’t kill you, smoking a joint every day can catch up with your heart and cause other health issues,” says Dr. Pack.

As for alcohol consumption, the World Heart Federation in January released a statement noting “the evidence is clear: any level of alcohol consumption can lead to loss of a healthy life with studies showing that even small amounts of alcohol can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Forget the Wine

“If you are drinking wine for the health benefits of the antioxidants it contains, you are much better off getting antioxidants from eating fresh blueberries and grapes instead,” says Dr. Pack.

Addressing mental health is also important.

Exercise has powerful effects on reducing depression and anxiety. Additionally, stress reduction can be important. This can include meditation, prayer, purposeful gratitude, and mindfulness. Even taking a minute or two to notice your surroundings and find gratitude can improve health, notes Dr. Pack.

There is good news and bad news.

Golden Age of Cardiology

“The good news is that we are living in the ‘golden age’ of cardiology. If you adhere to your physician’s advice to stop smoking, follow your recommended diet, exercise, take your medications regularly, and actively participate in therapies your doctor orders, then your chance of survival has never been better. If you choose not to, then you can expect to have multiple more problems with your heart and a shorter lifespan,” says Dr. Pack about the general rules for patients following a heart attack or heart surgery.

“The bad news is that we have no cure for heart disease yet. But today’s modern therapies can slow the disease greatly, and that is good news overall,” he adds.

February is American Heart Month – a time to shine a spotlight on heart disease, the number one killer of Americans, when all people can focus on their cardiovascular health and address their risk factors for the disease.


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