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What to do after a heart attack: The first 5 things
Nurse your heart back to health and help prevent future illness with these steps.
Heart attacks are life-changing emergencies. It’s 100% normal to be scared and have many questions throughout your recovery.
It’s also very important to listen to your doctor and follow your treatment plan. About 1 in 5 people who have a heart attack will have a second in five years. But there are steps you can take to stop future heart problems and stay healthy.
Here are five important to-dos after a heart attack, straight from an Optum heart doctor. Following these tips will help keep you on the right track.
1. Learn your numbers
Your heart health depends on many factors. And keeping your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels in check is important for healing.
Cholesterol. There’s good cholesterol (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL). (Both are types of fat found in the blood.) Too much LDL causes plaque to form. Plaque can block blood from flowing through your arteries and form blood clots. Blood clots can travel to the heart and cause a heart attack.1
You can test your cholesterol with a simple blood test either at home or at your doctor’s office.
“After a heart attack, get your cholesterol down as low as it can go,” says Robert Harizi, MD. He’s a cardiologist at Reliant Medical Group, part of Optum, in Worcester, Massachusetts. “Make sure the LDL is less than 70 at the least.”
Your doctor will likely put you on a statin medication to help keep bad cholesterol in check. Statins lower the amount of LDL your body makes. And this slows down plaque buildup.2 If cholesterol is still high with a statin, there are more medications to help. Learn more about how to manage cholesterol.
Blood pressure. An ideal healthy blood pressure (BP) is 120/80 or lower for most adults, but 130/80 or lower is also acceptable. As you age, this number can change. Know your blood pressure post-heart attack. And be sure to check that number throughout your recovery.
When your BP is too high, it can damage your arteries by clogging them. And clogged arteries stop blood from reaching your heart. This can lead to another heart attack.3
You can check it at home by using a BP monitor. Keep track of the number and let your doctor know if it’s higher than 130/80. You can keep your blood pressure at a healthy level by:4
- Eating fruits and vegetables
- Eating fewer salty foods
- Drinking less alcohol
- Taking your medications correctly
Blood Sugar. High blood sugar (over 99 mg/dL6) raises your chances for having diabetes. It can also hurt the blood vessels and nerves surrounding your heart.5 The damage raises your risk of a heart attack.
You can keep tabs on your blood sugar with an A1c blood test. Usually, an A1c below 5.7% is normal.6
2. Join a cardiac rehab program
These programs are like support groups, but with physical therapy built in. (Physical therapy uses movement to care for pain and weakness.) After a heart attack, it can be hard to get motivated to make the changes you need to. And sometimes, it’s just overwhelming. These programs can help you learn to navigate your new normal.
Here’s what to expect at a cardiac rehab session:7
- Help planning healthy meals
- How to take medications properly
- Emotional support and counseling
- Answers to your recovery questions
- Guided exercises
- Blood pressure and heart rate checks
All parts of the program are helpful. Guided exercise is especially great for those who have never worked out. You’ll start with light exercise during the weekly sessions. There will be low-intensity workouts like walking on a treadmill. Over time, you’ll get faster and stronger.
You’ll meet with others in cardiac recovery about two to three times per week. The goal is to keep following the advice and exercises when the program ends. Sessions usually begin immediately after your heart attack. They last about three months.
3. Eat smarter
It’s no secret that what you eat affects your health. It’s key to lowering your cholesterol and having a healthy blood pressure. If you’re part of a cardiac rehab program, you’ll get a well-rounded meal plan. If not, ask your doctor for a meal plan. Or work with a registered dietitian to create a plan you can stick to.
Some foods to consider are:
- White meat (chicken and other poultry)
- Low-fat dairy products
- Whole grains
- Nuts and legumes
Your doctor may also suggest the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. It’s an easy-to-follow eating plan. Learn more about how the DASH diet works.
4. Quit smoking
If you’ve had trouble quitting in the past, consider this your instant motivation. “If you’re a smoker, you need to stop,” says Dr. Harizi. “It’s the No. 1 thing you can do to stop future heart attacks,” he adds.
Cigarettes are loaded with dangerous chemicals. They harm every cell in your body. In particular, they damage your blood vessels. The inflammation that results can block blood flow to your heart.8
5. Find your support system
Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. And making healthy choices can be difficult if you’re not in a good mindset. Plus, too much stress can also lead to high blood pressure.9
You can expect the first two to six months after a heart attack to be full of emotions. You may be worried about getting back to work or having another heart attack.10 You may be angry that this happened to you. Or you might feel depressed. Be sure to speak with family, friends, your doctor or a therapist about your feelings. It’s an important part of your recovery.
Cardiac rehab programs are great support systems, too. You’ll be surrounded by others who are going through the same thing. If you’re struggling, don’t wait to reach out for help. Talk to your doctor and/or check out virtual support options such as the ones from Optum.
Keeping your heart healthy during the first year after a heart attack is important. It will lower your chances of having another. People who follow these tips and listen to their doctor can cut their chances of another heart attack in half, says Dr. Harizi.
You could be back to health in anywhere from two weeks to three months. It all depends on the severity of the heart attack and how well you stick to your treatment plan. What’s important to remember? You can heal and get back to living your life.
- American Heart Association. How do my cholesterol levels affect my risk of heart attack and stroke? Published 2020. Accessed August 21, 2022.
- Medline Plus. Statins. Last updated April 27, 2016. Accessed August 22, 2022.
- American Heart Association. Health threats from high blood pressure. Last reviewed March 4, 2022. Accessed August 21, 2022.
- American Heart Association. Five simple steps to control your blood pressure. Last reviewed November 30, 2017.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes and your heart. Last reviewed June 20, 2022. Accessed August 31, 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes tests. Last reviewed August 10, 2021. Accessed August 31, 2022.
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Heart attack recovery. Last updated March 24, 2022. Accessed August 15, 2022.
- Food and Drug Administration. How smoking affects heart health. Last reviewed November 9, 2021. Accessed August 15, 2022.
- American Heart Association. Chronic stress can cause heart trouble. Published February 4, 2020. Accessed August 25, 2022.
- American Heart Association. Heart attack recovery FAQs. Last revised July 31, 2015. Accessed August 25, 2022.
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