5 strategies to live well after a heart attack

Heart Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Feb 13, 2024

Although thankful to be alive, people don’t always find life after a heart attack easy. It’s not uncommon to feel confused, overwhelmed and even a bit fearful.

The good news is, by implementing simple habits and working closely with your healthcare team, you can effectively manage your life after a heart attack and work towards a healthier, more fulfilling future.

“I think about life after a heart attack as a journey,” said Scott Ewing, DO, an interventional cardiologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital – Fort Worth. “The hospital is the starting point for treatment and education, but the journey continues once you get home.”

5 strategies to live well after a heart attack

1. Manage your medications

After a heart attack, you need to take your medications as prescribed by your doctor. Common medications include ACE inhibitors to lower blood pressure, anti-clotting medications, anticoagulants or blood thinners, beta blockers and statins to control or lower blood cholesterol. “Individuals should know what they’re taking and why,” said Dr. Ewing.

It's also important to monitor for side effects. For example, the most common side effect of blood pressure medicine is low blood pressure, which can cause dizziness, weakness and fatigue, while side effects of aspirin or other blood thinners include bleeding and bruising.

2. See your doctor

A few weeks after the heart attack, it’s important to follow up with your cardiologist and primary care doctor and, if you’ve had surgery, with your heart surgeon. This is the time to discuss any medication side effects and get answers to any other lingering questions—from you or your family member. It’s important to bring all your prescription and over-the-counter medicine bottles to that visit and all subsequent visits (or an accurate list of medicines you’re taking) as well as your blood pressure diary.

Dr. Ewing asks his individuals in his care to see him within the first week after discharge so they can go over what happened, why it happened, medications and risk factors.

3. Participate in cardiac rehab

After a heart attack or heart surgery, people should participate in a supervised exercise program for three weekly one-hour sessions for 12 weeks. “I really consider cardiac rehab to be the beginning of lifelong exercise,” Dr. Ewing said. “Cardiac rehab gets you started with exercise, but it needs to be something that’s continued long after the initial 12 weeks are over.”

Cardiac rehab helps lower your overall risk for heart disease because you start eating better and losing weight. It also can get you get back to work sooner and it helps with feelings of depression, which are very common after a heart attack. “You see what other people are doing in life and what they’re able to accomplish,” Dr. Ewing said. “That is a big part of getting your life back after a heart attack.”

4. Lean on your support system

Family, friends and church members all can provide support after a heart attack to help manage medicines, assist with meal prep and other household tasks and support you in your efforts to get your strength back. Cardiac rehab staff and patients also play an important support role in answering questions and providing education and encouragement.

5. Reduce your risk factors

Surgery, stents or medication may have fixed your immediate heart issue, but you run the risk of recurrence if you don’t manage your heart disease risk factors. It is key to focus on things that can be changed, including quitting smoking and keeping blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar under control. “You need to make sure you’re physically active, managing stress, getting adequate sleep, limiting alcohol intake and eating a healthy diet,” said Dr. Ewing.

“I think of these five things as long-term strategies,” said Dr. Ewing. “It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight and it’s our job as physicians and families to support people and help them.”

Even if progress may seem slow going, you have to trust the process. “You have to have to have faith that this stuff is going to help you,” said Dr. Ewing. He adds there is study and anecdotal data that shows quitting smoking, controlling blood pressure, diet and exercise, cardiac rehab, getting sleep, and not drinking so much alcohol is effective in reducing risk of another cardiac event.

Most importantly, don’t avoid going to the doctor. “I tell people that I want their visit with me to be boring and for us to remain distant friends, because that means that they’re doing well. Our success rate with these five strategies is really good. If you can stick to them, you can live a long, long time after a heart attack,” said Dr. Ewing. So, while on your heart health journey, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctors or cardiac rehab team.

Questions about your heart health? Take this quiz or to connect with a cardiologist near you.

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