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4 Self-Care Challenges to Overcome After a Heart Attack

February is Heart and Stroke Awareness Month. Given that heart disease impacts approximately 2.4 million Canadians, educating the public is important. At Aetonix, we believe strongly that better understanding a health condition is one of the keys to prevention.

When we say “prevention,” we’re not just talking about preventing heart attacks, strokes, and the conditions that lead up to them. We’re also talking about preventing recurrences. What happens after patients are released from the hospital? What steps can they take to improve future health outcomes and quality of life?

We all know recovery is possible. Many people overcome major health issues and go on to lead long and highly-independent lives. But doing so can require a whole lot of dedication. After a heart attack, it’s important to take prescribed lifestyle changes and self-care activities seriously.

In this post, we’ll be looking at four of the biggest challenges heart-attack patients face post-discharge.

1) Understanding medications

Living with a chronic disease often means taking multiple medications, a task that can be stressful. While a patient may already be taking medication when she experiences a heart attack, consequent changes to this routine can create new challenges.

Unfortunately, many heart attack patients don’t adhere to the drug regiments prescribed by their doctors. In one study, angioplasty patients were asked six weeks after their procedures whether they were taking drugs to prevent blood clots as prescribed. Of those surveyed, 25% said they were only taking their drugs occasionally. And 4% said they did so rarely.

There are many potential reasons for non-compliance. Some patients may become confused as their self-care routines become more complex. Others may fear or dislike the side effects of a medication. Whatever the reason for skipping or taking doses incorrectly, serious consequences can result.

It’s critical that patients know about all relevant medications before leaving the hospital. What do the drugs do? How should they be taken? And what are the potential consequences of failing to take them correctly?

Unfortunately, hospitals are busy environments where both patients and practitioners are likely to encounter stress. Patients may be inclined to say they understand a set of instructions, only to become confused once they get home.

In addition to ensuring patients understand before discharge, ongoing educational efforts and day-to-day support for patients at home has a great deal of potential to help. The right video app can help by connecting nurses, physicians, and other caregivers to patients who have medication-related questions.

2) Reducing stress  

Researchers are still investigating the link between stress and heart disease. But according to Harvard Health Publishing, workplace, financial, and caregiver stress (among other types) can all take a toll on the heart.

Stress can increase your blood pressure, in addition to causing all kinds of other side effects. In addition, coping mechanisms that many people use to deal with stress—such as drinking, smoking, and over-eating—can exacerbate existing heart issues.

It’s also worth noting that patients face an elevated risk of anxiety and depression after a heart attack. These issues can make recovery more difficult, creating a vicious cycle that may lead to worse physical and mental health outcomes.

Luckily, studies have suggested that psychosocial therapies can reduce the risk of second heart attacks. What does this mean? It means that busting stress just might help you stay heart healthy. And for those who smoke, binge eat, or engage in other risky behaviours to deal with stress, finding healthier methods of handling negative feelings could have a major positive impact.

The right steps for dealing with stress will likely depend on the source of these feelings. Working with a psychologist may help. On the other hand, ongoing support from nurses and other health care providers may be enough to reduce any anxieties a patient has about their future risk and self-care activities.

Of course, if you’re a patient, the first rule of recovery is to listen to physicians who know your entire medical history. Your doctor needs to be made aware of major physical and psychological changes as they come up.

3) Exercise & dietary changes

Needless to say, a heart-healthy diet and an appropriate exercise plan are key to recovery for most heart attack patients. In conjunction with any relevant specialists, your personal physician can provide information regarding the lifestyle changes you need to make.

But a quick visit with your doctor is the easy part. Even if you have consistent, ongoing support from other health care providers and family members, success may require extraordinary effort on your part.

Making and sticking to major lifestyle changes can be incredibly difficult. After a heart attack, many patients vow to change their diet and exercise regiments, only to revert to past behaviours. Harvard Medical School has identified a few potential reasons for this struggle.

Harvard notes that guilt, fear, and regret are often primary sources of motivation when we resolve to make healthier changes. Unfortunately, these feelings don’t always create the outcomes patients hope for. Positive thinking is far more effective.

Another noteworthy point: not all goal-setting methods are created equal. Studies show that creating a limited number of highly-specific goals—and ensuring you have a plan ready for times when you encounter setbacks—is critical.

4) The connection between self care & heart health

There’s no doubt about it: self-care activities are important. After a heart attack, much of a patient’s recovery occurs at home. With the right information and support, the chances of reaching health care-related goals are much higher.

Luckily, there are a number of digital tools that can empower heart attack patients throughout their self-care journeys. From apps that read blood pressure, to those that make it easy for patients and their circles of care to share and update care plans, the possibilities are endless.

One final point of interest: gender may be a crucial factor in all of this. A recent report from the Heart and Stroke Foundation found that women don’t receive the same level of care when it comes to heart disease. As just one cited example, women are 50% less likely to complete cardiac rehabilitation—due in part to a lower referral rate from physicians.

If the health care system is going to provide better post-discharge support for heart attack patients in the years ahead, listening will be key. Providers must focus on encouraging all patients to discuss their symptoms, worries, and healthcare experiences.

Feature image courtesy of Helen Penjam

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