8 Mistakes Heart Patients Make

If you've already had heart treatment for one heart attack, you're at increased risk for another, but with a few smart moves you can reduce that risk.

"The way you respond to a heart attack can make a profound difference in what happens to you in the future," says Lawrence W. Gimple, M.D., a cardiologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Unfortunately, many heart patients have mistaken ideas about what's good for them. Dr. Gimple explains the following are some common errors of judgment.

Mistake 1: Thinking all heart attacks are the same.

If your Aunt Mary had a heart attack even after a lifetime of eating low-fat foods and jogging every day, you may think changing your own lifestyle is not worth the trouble. Or, your friend the construction worker may have given up his job after a heart attack, so you assume you'll need to give up your desk job, too. Don't count on it. Work with your cardiologist to learn what's best for you personally.

"What's true for one person is not true for another," says Dr. Gimple. "People have different health risks that aren't apparent on the outside."

Mistake 2: Not adopting a healthy lifestyle.

Learning to eat better may seem like the challenge of a lifetime--not to mention giving up cigarettes or making time for regular exercise. Yet, these are some of the best things you can do for a happier, healthier future.

"A heart attack can change people's lives for the better when it inspires them to make healthy improvements," says Dr. Gimple. "Ask your health care provider for support in adopting a healthy lifestyle.

Important lifestyle changes steps that can help you prevent a second heart attack include:

  • Quit smoking.

  • Exercise regularly, according to your cardiologist's advice.

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet low in fat and calories.

  • Control your weight.

  • Manage your blood pressure.

  • Control your cholesterol levels.

  • Control diabetes or any other blood sugar abnormalities.

Mistake 3: Staying stuck in grief or depression.

"A heart attack can be a life-altering event, not only for the patient, but for the spouse, children, friends and coworkers," explains Dr. Gimple.

You may have lost your healthy self-image or the ability to do important things in your life. Any major life change will bring feelings of loss and require a grieving process, with the normal stages of denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

You and your family may need to work through each of those steps. Keep in mind that doing so leads to a positive, constructive future.

If you feel stuck in one of these stages, don't hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional.

Mistake 4: Giving up on heart medications.

Don't stop taking your medications without talking to your cardiologist. Work with your cardiologist to determine what your choices are and what these medications can do for you in terms of risk versus benefit. Ask for help in choosing the ones that:

  • Work the best for you

  • Have the fewest side effects

  • Are affordable

  • You'll be comfortable taking

Mistake 5: Tiptoeing around your family.

Think about it: If you quit smoking and everyone else in the family quits as a result, you'll be helping everyone. Don't be afraid to make a big deal about your attempts at a healthy lifestyle; ask your loved ones to give you as much support as possible.

"Heart disease runs in families as do unhealthy habits, like poor eating, lack of exercise and smoking," notes Dr. Gimple. "Everyone can use a good role model."

Mistake 6: Staking your life on yesterday's truths.

In many cases, the heart attack treatments doctors relied on just a few years ago already are considered outmoded.

"Recognize there's been a huge amount of progress made in the last 15 years in terms of how we care for heart attack patients," says Dr. Gimple. "There have been dramatic changes in medications and procedures, changes that can have a big effect on people's lives. It's a major mistake not to take advantage of this revolution in heart treatments."

Mistake 7: Shunning exercise.

Maybe you're worried it will overstress your heart, but regular exercise actually may be one of the best things you can do for your heart. It's crucial for someone who's already had a heart attack to exercise properly under the advice of a doctor. Get an exercise prescription designed just for you, based on your physical condition and your needs and interests.

Exercise can help people control heart attack risks related to weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar. One excellent way to get started is to participate in a cardiac rehabilitation program.

"Some people hear 'cardiac rehabilitation' and think it's a tiresome program for invalids, not realizing it's really an exercise and counseling program," says Dr. Gimple. "It's about exercising regularly and feeling great."

Mistake 8: Not "bothering" your doctor with questions.

Your cardiologist is your greatest ally and wants to partner in your care. Don't hesitate to call if you have questions or concerns.

"Heart attack is caused by a chronic condition called coronary artery disease," explains Dr. Gimple. "A chronic disease isn't like pneumonia, where a few doses of antibiotic can make you all better. Coronary artery disease must be managed over a long period of time. People must establish a relationship with their cardiologist and manage their lifestyles over a long time. This is not a quick fix."