Protecting your health after a heart attack

December 14, 2017 Providence Health Team

Heart attacks typically include symptoms such as tightness or pain in the chest, neck, back or arms, or a sudden onset of fatigue, lightheadedness, abnormal heartbeat or anxiety. It is important to point out, however, that women may experience atypical symptoms more often than men. These include shortness of breath, nausea, clamminess or cold sweats; pain in the upper back, shoulders, neck or jaw; or unexplained fatigue, anxiety, weakness or numbness. It is believed the reason women experience different heart attack symptoms is that they have a higher pain tolerance than men. As a result, women tend to attribute their symptoms to another condition or ailment such as the flu, stress or simply feeling under the weather – which often puts their lives at risk.

Interestingly, some heart attacks may not present any recognizable symptoms. This type of heart attack is called a silent heart attack and is most common in people with diabetes and those over the age of 75. If you are 75 years old or more or suffer from diabetes, you should visit a cardiologist regularly to monitor your cardiovascular and heart health.


What happens during a heart attack?

The heart requires a constant flow of oxygen-rich blood to keep it working well. The coronary arteries supply the heart with this critical blood supply. When you suffer from coronary artery disease, your arteries narrow due to a build-up of plaque, calcium, fatty matter and other substances. This reduces the flow of blood and increases your risk of blood clots. When an artery is blocked by a blood clot, your heart cannot get enough oxygen-rich blood and its muscle cells begin to die, causing a heart attack.

Soon after a heart attack, your heart muscle begins to repair itself. The healing process is typically eight weeks, but just like any other wound, it leaves behind permanent damage and scar tissue. Unfortunately, scar tissue does not contract, which adversely affects the heart’s pumping ability.

Each year, approximately 750,000 Americans experience a heart attack, the large majority of which are first-timers. That adds up to a lot of people who may not know what to do after suffering such a physical trauma.


To protect your health after a heart attack, here are five actions to consider doing:

  1. Join a cardiac rehabilitation program
    Cardiac rehab is a medically supervised program designed to help improve your cardiovascular health. While it can’t change the past, it can help improve your heart health and lower your risk of additional heart attacks. In fact, it has been shown to lower mortality in those who’ve had a heart attack. The program consists of three equally important parts:
    • Exercise: You’ll learn about specific aerobic exercises like running, jogging or biking, and strength training exercises using weights, resistance bands and your own body weight, which can promote heart health.
    • Lifestyle: You’ll learn how to manage your risk factors and make heart-healthy lifestyle choices. The most common heart-healthy lifestyle changes include: quitting a smoking habit; eating plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains; and limiting sweets and red meat. It is also important to maintain a healthy weight and manage blood pressure and cholesterol levels while you diet, exercise or use medications.
    • Stress: You’ll learn how to protect your heart by identifying and managing everyday sources of stress. People under stress are more likely to overeat, make unhealthy food choices, smoke more and drink more.
  2. Follow up with a cardiologist
    Schedule an appointment within a week of being discharged to ensure you are tolerating your medications. It’s also important to bring a list of concerns and discuss them with your cardiologist so he or she can monitor any residual or new symptoms and help you establish a self-care plan.
  3. Speak to a dietitian
    Actively control heart disease with help from a registered dietitian. Nutrition makes all the difference, and a dietitian can spend the time to analyze your current diet and make specific heart-healthy recommendations. Early dietary intervention is best to help prevent cardiac events like heart attack or stroke. However, it’s never too late to seek nutritional recommendations from a registered dietitian.
  4. Make long-term lifestyle changes
    After a heart attack, it’s important to take better care of everything that could affect the health of your cardiovascular system. It’s important to manage conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes through medications, quitting tobacco use, eating a heart-healthy diet and getting regular exercise.
  5. Seek therapy to manage fear, anxiety and depression
    Experiencing a heart attack is a life-changing event. Therefore, many survivors feel scared, confused, depressed or overwhelmed following a heart attack. It’s completely normal to feel this way, but it is important to monitor your mental health as you start down the path to recovery. Emotional stress starts a negative chain reaction inside your body; your heart rate increases, your blood vessels constrict and your blood pressure rises. If you suffer chronic stress, your body doesn’t have time to recover, often leading to damage to your artery walls.


If you or a loved one experiences a heart attack, seek medical attention as quickly as possible. After the initial shock of the trauma has passed, it’s important to be proactive in your physical, emotional and mental recovery. Speak with a dietitian or cardiologist to plan a healthy future for your heart. 

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