When people think of heart attacks, chances are they consider them as one-off events. In reality, a heart attack is actually a chronic disease that can impact health for life.
In Australia, 430,100 people, or 1.9 per cent of the population, have a heart attack each year that impacts them and their health for at least six months. While it’s easy for people to think they’re simply managing a single health event that they’re able to easily bounce back from, it’s not always that simple.
A heart attack occurs when there is a blockage of an artery that provides blood to the heart. Like all muscles, the heart requires regular and healthy blood to remain alive. When a heart attack occurs, it’s typically because plaque and fatty materials cause arteries to become narrow, resulting in blood clots and reduced blood flow to the heart.
“The longer you delay, the longer it takes to open up that heart artery and the more heart muscle dies,” Rachelle Foreman, health director at the Heart Foundation told Starts at 60. “Clearly, the more muscle that’s dead, the worse the heart functions and the longer it takes to recover. Some people won’t recover well, they’ll be impacted forever.”
Unfortunately for Baby Boomers, the risk of a heart attack increases significantly from the age of 45. While many are aware that chest pain, chest pressure and discomfort can be a warning sign, there are other less obvious symptoms such as jaw pain, pain down the arms or back, nausea, fatigue or even flu-like symptoms. If symptoms last for more than 10 minutes, it’s vital to dial triple-zero.
If the worst does happen and a person suffers a heart attack, it’s important to not only recover correctly, but realise what caused it in the first place. When a person enters hospital for treatment, one blockage is typically treated. In reality, they probably have other blockages in their system and will require medication and ongoing treatment for the rest of their lives.
One way medical staff fix a blockage is inserting a stent into a blocked artery. Acting like a little balloon, it expands in the artery and a wire stent keeps it open and prevents further blockages. While it’s not invasive, some people with multiple blockages require bypass surgery, when the sternum is cut, the chest opened and multiple blockages are fixed.
“It can take six to eight weeks for that wound to heal,” Foreman warned. “People have a constant physical scar that reminds them as well.”
Besides physical scars, the heart attack can have other lasting impacts on a person. Around 40 per cent of all heart attack survivors experience depression after an attack, while many more experience difficulty resuming a sex life after an attack. Others simply can’t return to their job, impacting them and their family financially.
“Our research shows one in two either don’t go back to work at all, or don’t go back in the same capacity as before,” Foreman said. “It can have a significant financial impact for people.”
Before it gets as bad as needing surgery, it’s important to remember there are many things people can do to prevent an attack and manage living with heart disease.
Smokers should quit immediately, while remaining physically active is important.
“We’re not talking about marathons, we’re just talking 30 minutes of walking a day,” Foreman added. “It can be spread out throughout the day.”
Changing a diet to cut out discretionary food and drink and to include more fruits and vegetables is important, while managing blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugars is also vital. Equally, if you’ve been prescribed medication, ensure you’re managing them correctly and taking them as instructed by your doctor or health professional.
“They are there to help your heart work as best as it can and stop another heart event as well,” Foreman said. “Lifestyle is as equally as important as medication, as is not ignoring the psychosocial side. If you think you’re depressed, see your doctor.”
Equally, it’s important to stay social by reaching out to people who have been through similar experience as you.
“People feel every emotion under the sun. It’s denial, anger, depression, sadness, guilt, stress. Sometimes they feel alone,” Foreman added. “We do find that reaching out to other people online or in support groups can be really helpful to connect with people going through something similar.”
For more help and information regarding heart attacks, visit heartfoundation.org.au or call 13 11 12.