Most Australians are aware heart attacks are a huge problem. Each year, 1.9 per cent of the population, or 430,100 people, experience an attack that impacts their health for at least six months.
They usually occur due to blockages in the arteries that provide blood to the heart, often caused by plaque and fatty materials. People are aware that improving diets and making lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of a heart attack, but many don’t talk about the impacts it actually has on a person’s life and their relationship once this occurs.
One of the key things to realise is a person’s mood can dramatically change.
“We know about 40 per cent of people after a heart attack will suffer some level of depression and that surprises a lot of people,” Rachelle Foreman, health director at the Heart Foundation tells Starts at 60. “We also find for a lot of males, it depends on their role in the family and the household and sometimes it can really impact their self-awareness and self-esteem in terms of how they perceive themselves.”
Therefore a key role as a carer, partner or family member is to ask the person if they’re okay, talk about the heart attack and acknowledge it happened.
“Often the family members have moved on from the event. The hospitalisation is usually only three to four days and they wonder why the patient hasn’t,” Foreman says. “That’s because they’re going through the whole grieving process of ‘why me?’. There’s a bit of denial and anger and depression and finally acceptance. That process can take a long time.”
Some people struggle to have sex or get intimate after a heart attack. Because this is often an important part of a relationship, it can leave them and their partners feeling angry, frustrated and upset. Sharing special moments is still important, even if it’s not resuming sex straight away.
“It’s not like you necessarily have to go the Full Monty, but even the touch, the caring, the feel, all of that without smothering is really important from significant others,” Foreman says. “The Heart Foundation has a helpline service staffed by health professionals, which is 13 11 12, and it’s a fantastic service for both patients and family members to contact if they want to check anything they’re feeling or they’re not sure of about their condition, or to be sent fantastic resources.”
It’s not uncommon for some heart attack sufferers to make big lifestyle changes following their attack. Some will take the initiative to do things they’ve been putting off that potentially contributed to the attack in the first place. Before getting to that point, people can feel denial, anger, depression, sadness, guilt or stress, but it’s important to know it’s all part of the healing process.
“We do know that having a major heart attack, for some people, is the biggest wakeup call of their life,” Foreman says. “They really make some changes to what they’re doing. It might be giving up smoking or starting physical activity or eating better.”
Research shows one in two heart attack sufferers won’t return to work at all, or can’t return in the same capacity. It can place significant financial impact on some families. People at highest risk of a heart attack are those who already had one because it is a chronic condition. Therefore it’s a lifelong issue and they may require cardiac rehabilitation.
“You’re not broken, but you obviously still have something you need to manage forever,” Foreman adds. “If a heart attack is really significant, what happens to the patient normally is they will have a condition called heart failure, which is really the inability of the heart to pump enough to meet the needs of your body. There’s a whole heap of medications that go with that.
“That does require a lot more pressure on the carer to help manage not only the medications, but the fluid in the body in terms of making sure the heart’s not doing too much work. That’s often what causes people to need to go into care.”
Heart attack survivors may also require more help with medical appointments and day-to-day tasks they used to be able to complete without assistance.
Read more: The warning signs of a deadly heart attack
Being a chronic condition, taking the proper medication regularly is a key way of managing heart health and preventing another episode. Even when feeling better, patients need to make sure they’re taking medication as prescribed to ensure there isn’t a repeat attack.
Having said that, medication alone isn’t enough and it’s often up to carers to ensure their loved ones are living healthily and taking their medication.
“Often the carer will be the one who tries to help make the changes in the lifestyle, the better eating, physical activity or making sure they’re taking medication,” Foreman says. “Lifestyle is as equally as important as medication, as is not ignoring the psychosocial side. If you think you’re depressed, see your doctor.”
For more help and information regarding heart attacks, visit heartfoundation.org.au or call 13 11 12.