Making a comeback after a heart attack

There's no getting around it—a heart attack is a life-altering experience. But it is possible to recover fully.

"People who have a heart attack must realize it doesn't have to be devastating," says Gerald Fletcher, MD, an American Heart Association (AHA) volunteer expert. "If you take good care of yourself, you can recover very well."

Every year, tens of thousands of people survive heart attacks, according to the AHA. And many recover fully.

Road to recovery

How long it takes to recover from a heart attack varies from person to person—depending on the severity of the heart attack and any complications associated with it.

"Many people can go home from the hospital in two to three days," Dr. Fletcher says. "To get back to a normal lifestyle, it can take anywhere from two to three weeks to two to three months."

The most important thing you can do following a heart attack is work with your doctor to develop a recovery plan that best suits your needs.

Ask your doctor about diet and exercise and what medications you should take. Find out when you can resume driving, working, physical activity and sexual activity. And talk to your doctor about starting a cardiac rehabilitation program.

Change your lifestyle

If you've had a heart attack, chances are good that your lifestyle contributed to it. So think of your heart attack as a wake-up call.

"Lifestyle changes are very important after a heart attack. You have to watch your weight and what you eat," Dr. Fletcher says. "Proper exercise is also important under the guidance of a doctor."

The AHA recommends a lifestyle that includes:

  • Avoiding secondhand smoke and not smoking.
  • A heart-healthy diet that is low in saturated and trans fats, red meat, sweets and salt. Your diet should emphasize a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Also select low-fat dairy products and choose fish, poultry and lean meats. Your doctor or a dietitian can help you select a diet that will be best for your heart.
  • 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity three or four times a week. It's best to be active every day. Your doctor can help you set up a safe exercise program.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Regular visits to a doctor.

Your doctor may also prescribe medications following a heart attack. They may include aspirin and drugs to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol and help reduce your heart's workload. Make sure to carefully follow your doctor's directions for taking these medicines.

Rehab for your heart

Cardiac rehabilitation is a program supervised by a doctor that can help speed up your recovery from a heart attack and improve your overall physical and mental well-being.

The goal of cardiac rehabilitation, according to the AHA, is to reduce your risk of having another heart attack or to keep an existing heart condition from getting worse.

The AHA says a cardiac rehabilitation program should include:

  • Counseling to help you better understand and manage your heart condition.
  • An exercise program that may include walking and using a treadmill, bike or rowing machine.
  • Help in dealing with risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, smoking, physical inactivity, obesity and diabetes.
  • Help returning to work.
  • Information about physical limitations.
  • Emotional support.

Talk to your doctor about setting up a cardiac rehabilitation program.

Life after a heart attack

If you follow your doctor's advice and take your heart attack after-care program seriously, you should be able to once again enjoy a healthful and active life.

But keep in mind, your chances of having another heart attack increase following your first one, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. That makes it extremely important for you to do all you can to lower your risk. It's also a good idea for you and your family to be aware of the signs of another heart attack and know when to seek medical attention.

"We do have repeat heart attacks. It's very common," Dr. Fletcher says. "But if you do the proper things after your first heart attack, you should lower your risk."

reviewed 6/10/2019

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