What to Expect After a Heart Attack

Both body and mind

The good news is that since the early 1950s cardiovascular death rates in Canada have dropped by more than 75 per cent, according to Statistics Canada, mostly because of improved surgical procedures, drug therapies and prevention efforts.

The bad news is that every seven minutes a Canadian still dies from heart disease or stroke.

If you or someone you love has recently suffered a heart attack there’s a lot to understand when moving forward and it can all feel quite overwhelming. Knowing the extent of damage after a heart attack is the first stop.

“If you have significant damage you’re at risk for congestive heart failure,” says Dr. Beth Abramson, a cardiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation. “The heart is a pump that moves blood through the body. When you have a heart attack the pump is damaged and weakened. The longer we wait to get to the hospital and ignore our symptoms the more likely the chance for major damage. Timing is so important.”

Fortunately, many heart attack sufferers survive with little, if any, damage to the heart.

“In this day and age, we now have the technology to treat heart attacks quickly and minimize heart muscle damage,” says Dr. Abramson, who also teaches at the University of Toronto and wrote the book Heart Health for Canadians. “Many of my patients have no significant effects on their body after a heart attack.”

But one thing anyone who’s had a heart attack can count on is the need to be on certain medications for the rest of their life to help prevent further attacks down the road, says Dr. Abramson. That includes cholesterol pills (regardless of your cholesterol level), aspirin-like medication, and certain other heart pills, most of which she says have no side effects.

The stress of having gone through a life-threatening event can also affect a person’s mental health.

“The risk of depression is high, she says. “I tell my patients depression is common, but not normal and it needs treatment.” That treatment can include various forms of counselling and sometimes medication if the depression is prolonged. It all depends on the person.

But everyone, emphasizes Dr. Abramson, should be involved in a Cardiac Rehab Program, which can make a huge difference in recovery progress, yet is often underutilized. It involves a team of health care professionals, such as doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and pharmacists, who take care of the whole patient – mind and body. “If you or a family member have had a heart attack and have not been sent to a Cardiac Rehab Program, ask your doctor to do so.”

NEXT: The biggest misconception people have about life after a heart attack

As for the biggest misconception people have about life after a heart attack, Dr. Abramson says it’s that they think their lives are over.

“People sometimes think they’re going to have to quit their jobs, lose 100 pounds, stop drinking and eat a purely vegetarian diet. That’s just not realistic and it’s not sustainable.”

What they do have to do, she says, is make realistic and lasting lifestyle changes that include quitting smoking (a biggie), eating more healthily, perhaps losing some weight, reducing stress, limiting alcohol consumption and getting some form of exercise for a minimum of 50 minutes a week.

“No one has to put on spandex and go to a gym to be physically active,” she emphasizes. “Even just walking can be beneficial.”

And that goes for all of us – even those who haven’t had a heart attack, since we Boomers are at the age and stage where we’re at the greatest risk for one, points out Dr. Abramson.

“All Boomers need to understand how to prevent heart disease in the first place, minimize their risk and take charge of their health. We have opportunities and access to ways to lead vibrant, happy lives, but we have to pay attention to our own risk factors and our own health. Even though we have the best medicine and technology out there, it can only do so much.”